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

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Just after 2 p.m. Friday, Juan Soto walked down the long ramp from the player parking lot to Nationals Park, taking the same path he’d taken before so many games, smiling at the social media team who jumped at the chance. to post about him. , heading towards the clubhouse he once called home.

But instead of going completely inside the clubhouse — instead of sitting by a locker at the back of the room, instead of changing into red workout clothes, instead of taking a Late lunch from the chef cooking Latin American dishes in the cafeteria – Soto stopped by the small lobby. 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.

Boswell: Juan Soto’s trade ends an era. A new one will start sooner than you think.

Ten days later, Soto, 23 and a veteran of the brightest spotlight, came to face them.

“There’s just a lot of emotions, a lot of feelings that I have in this stadium,” the outfielder 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. Soto’s tribute section began with his first career home run when he was just 19 years old. It ended with some of the biggest hits in the club’s history: his game-winning single against the Milwaukee Brewers in the 2019 wild card game, which he called his favorite. time 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 loudspeakers. “Thank you. You made me who I am today.

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

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 the Padres, 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 last game in Washington. After Scherzer and Turner were traded last summer, they didn’t come to DC until this season, with Scherzer having left the Dodgers for 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 hit Soto — the two syllables that, before this month, were synonymous with smiles and massive swings in Washington — Hruska would hit 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 in front of home plate and starter Cory Abbott walked off the mound. Soto tilted his helmet, the cheers growing louder until they faded into a cloudless evening. Then Soto threw some dirt around the batter’s box and prepared to strike.

About Richard Chandler

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