Juan Soto returns to Nationals Park

WASHINGTON — When Juan Soto first heard he’d been traded to San Diego, the slugger said he “cried all morning.” Then he peeked at his new schedule. Just on the horizon, after what will now always be known as the Juan Soto Trade Deadline passed, the Padres were set to visit the nation’s capital. It was this scheduling quirk that allowed Soto to cap the emotional farewells he’d soon have with his teammates with a twist of silver-lined wisdom.

“I told the guys, ‘It’s not goodbye,” Soto said. “‘It’s see you later.’”

So it was Friday, when Soto returned to Washington as a visitor for the first time. Ten days after the blockbuster deal that sent the two-time All-Star to San Diego, Soto strode the long, familiar path to the home clubhouse inside Nationals Park, stopped in its lobby, and smiling, dabbed up its staffers. Then he made an unfamiliar turn and kept walking. After a few more, Soto hopped up the third-base dugout stairs, surprised at the size of the media scrum awaiting him. He shouted a greeting in Spanish to a friend on the field. Then the 23-year-old superstar climbed atop the dugout bench, sat and took in the first stadium he ever called home from an entirely new vantage point.

“It looks way different,” he said, sporting a pink Padres T-shirt and a backwards brown cap. “It’s a little longer of a walk.”

With that as a backdrop, Soto spent the hours before San Diego’s 10-5 win over the Nationals on Friday reflecting on “a lot of emotions and feelings that I have in this stadium, a lot of memories.” He made a career’s worth in parts of only five seasons in D.C., from his first-pitch home run in his first MLB start, to his game-breaking double in the 2019 Wild Card Game to his recent Home Run Derby win. Along the way, Soto compiled a World Series ring, a batting title and eye-popping numbers, emerging as a generational hitter with few historical comps and by this year’s Deadline, a trade candidate unlike any the sport had ever seen.

Thus the grip with which Soto’s whereabouts dominated baseball ever since July 16, when news broke that the star had turned down a 15-year, $440 million extension from the Nationals. Weeks of rumors and speculation culminated early Aug. 2, when the Padres won the Deadline sweepstakes by landing Soto and Josh Bell for a historic six-player haul. The monumental, landscape-shifting deal inserted Soto and Bell into the same lineup with All-Stars Manny Machado and Jake Cronenworth, signaling San Diego is all-in as it eyes a deep October run.

Friday marked a return, too, for Bell, who had been a National since 2021.

“It meant a lot for me and my family to be embraced by this community,” Bell said. “I can look back at my time here and be at peace about it.”

The Nationals welcomed both players back with a video tribute prior to first pitch, during which Soto thanked fans in a pre-recorded interview. He received a standing ovation prior to his first-inning at-bat, giving a hug to catcher Keibert Ruiz before stepping in. Bell went 0-for-5 with a walk. Soto connected for a double and an RBI single, finishing 2-for-6.

He’s gone 12-for-34 (.353) with six walks over his first nine games with San Diego, hitting safely in eight of them.

“It feels good to be back and see these guys and enjoy the moment,” Soto said. “I had some great moments here, but now we’ve got to just keep going.”

Soto spoke wistfully about his time with the Nationals, who signed him as a teenager out of the Dominican Republic before he debuted to immediate success in 2018, at age 19. He also praised the welcome he’s received from the Padres, lauding the “energy” in his new clubhouse and saying it already “feels like home.” What Soto did not express was resentment toward Washington’s front office for the trade.

“It was tough, but at the end of the day I understand it’s a business,” Soto said. “They did the best thing for them and I’m happy, no hard feelings.”

As for this weekend’s three-game series between the clubs, Soto admitted it might be a “good chance to say goodbye” to the Washington fans, recalling similar situations when Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer returned to D.C. as opposing players for the first time. He reminded them he’ll be back every year — not goodbye, only see you later.

“I gave them 100 percent when I was here, and I hope they enjoyed it,” he said. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how big I am, how many people know me. I’m going to be the same guy.”

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