Padres’ Juan Soto returns to Nats Park for first time since trade

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Just after 2 p.m. Friday, Juan Soto descended the long ramp from the player parking lot to Nationals Park, taking the same path he had before so many games, heading for the clubhouse he once called home.

But instead of going in completely – instead of going to a hidden locker, instead of changing into red workout clothes, instead of having a late lunch from the chef cooking Latin American dishes in the cafeteria – Soto stopped in the small hall. He held envelopes for the many attendants at the Washington Nationals clubhouse. As he handed them out, his familiar laugh could be heard from the hallway.

Then Soto still had a few hundred steps to go. For the first time in his four-year career, he was in DC and playing for the team on the road, his locker next to that of first baseman Josh Bell on the visiting side. When the Nationals traded Soto and Bell to the San Diego Padres on August 2, Soto immediately realized a reunion was brewing.

Ten days ago, he knew nothing but the Nationals, the team that signed him as a 16-year-old outfielder from the Dominican Republic.

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Ten days later, Soto, 23 and a veteran of the brightest spotlight, faced them in a 10-5 victory for the Padres.

“There are just a lot of emotions, a lot of feelings that I have in this stadium,” Soto said in the Padres’ dugout Friday afternoon, surrounded by more than 30 members of the media and six cameras. “I had a lot of memories in the past, so it feels good to be back and seeing these guys and enjoying the moment. It was great times here, but now we just have to keep going.

About 30 minutes before the first pitch, the Nationals released video for Bell and Soto, who were both stretching between the third base line and center field. As Soto watched, he chatted with Nelson Cruz, Luis García and Yadiel Hernandez, then hugged each of his former teammates. De Soto’s section of the tribute began with a 19-year-old throwing his first career home run in 2018. It ended with some of the biggest hits in club history: Soto’s game-winning single against the Milwaukee Brewers during the 2019 wild card game, his favorite moment at Nationals Park; his home run scoring in Game 5 of the National League Division Series this fall; then his imposing shot on Gerrit Cole in Game 1 of the World Series, the one that landed on the train tracks at Minute Maid Park.

After the early crowd gave the duo a standing ovation, Soto’s face appeared on the big screen. Wearing a backwards Padres hat, after swapping red for brown, he recorded a message for DC fans.

“I love you all, even though I have another team’s uniform. I will always love you guys,” Soto said through the stadium speakers. “Thank you. You made me who I am today.

To start the three-game series, Soto went 2 for 6 with an 111 mph double, an RBI single and a loud flight to the warning lane at center. Both hits came in the Padres’ fifth of seven runs against starter Cory Abbott and reliever Victor Arano. Bell finished 0 of 5 with a walk.

Trent Grisham opened the game with a three-run homer against Arano, who recorded two outs and scored for five runs on five hits. During the rally, García, who eventually came out at eighth with a tightness in his groin, went to turn a double play and threw at first before stepping on second, ultimately retiring no one.

The screens around the stadium were already malfunctioning – and would do so for much of the contest – leaving fans without direct access to the innings, count-out or score. And prior to this relative blackout, Soto was mic on the Apple TV+ show, discussing The Trade while playing defense on the right.

For most of July, after Soto turned down a $440 million 15-year extension offer, he was the biggest story in Major League Baseball. Would he land with the Los Angeles Dodgers, following the path taken by Trea Turner and Max Scherzer at last year’s trade deadline? And the Padres? The cardinals of Saint-Louis? Or could Soto stay in Washington if the Nationals can’t find an offer that matches a huge asking price?

Thanks to the Padres and general manager AJ Preller, the Nationals’ bar has been reached. Soto and Bell were shipped for six players: shortstop CJ Abrams, outfielders Robert Hassell III and James Wood, left-handed pitcher MacKenzie Gore, right-handed pitcher Jarlin Susana and first baseman/designated hitter Luke Voit. But before joining San Diego, during weeks of questions about his future, Soto repeated a few sentiments.

He loved Washington. He understood that sport is a business. He would be very relieved when the circus closed shop.

Friday’s timing, however, held a heavy weight on Soto’s first trip back to Washington. When Bryce Harper left for the Philadelphia Phillies in free agency, he returned an entire offseason after playing his final game for the Nationals. After Scherzer and Turner were dealt last summer, they didn’t come to DC until this season, with Scherzer moving from the Dodgers to the New York Mets around this time. Anthony Rendon, on the other hand, has yet to arrive here as a member of the Los Angeles Angels.

With these star-sized departures, fans had months to process before seeing them in this building in another uniform. But with Soto, it was more like pouring alcohol on a fresh wound.

“It’s different,” manager Dave Martinez said. “It’s just a little weird because I feel like he was just here yesterday.”

There was also a big difference in how Soto was presented before his first at bat. For the past five seasons, sound announcer Jerome Hruska has put his signature touch on Soto’s name. He pulled the vowels of Juan. His voice rose to the last consonant of Soto’s first name. And when he reached Soto — the two syllables that, before this month, were synonymous with smiles and massive swings in Washington — Hruska jumped for his high notes.

But not Friday. When Soto left the circle on the bridge, Hruska emphatically spoke his name, as he does to all opposing players. To give way to another standing ovation, catcher Keibert Ruiz walked past home plate and Abbott came down from the mound. Soto lifted his helmet, the cheers growing louder until they faded into a cloudless evening. Then Soto threw dirt around the batter’s box and prepared to strike.

“You never realize until you’re there,” Soto said when asked if he was more emotional than expected.

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