WASHINGTON — Back in his first big league home on Tuesday afternoon, Juan Soto took the field at Nationals Park early so he could catch up with a few of his former teammates and coaches. They all did a bit of reminiscing. Soto also had a message for them.
“When it’s game time, I’m playing for the team that I have on my chest,” he said. “So I don’t care about [ties to the Nationals] then, I told them.
“I told them: ‘I’m going to hit a homer against them.’”
And Juan Soto is a man of his word.
Or as Padres manager Bob Melvin put it: “He’s just good.”
It’s not the first time Soto has returned to Nationals Park since the blockbuster deal that brought him to San Diego at last summer’s Trade Deadline. But it was still clearly a meaningful reunion.
Prior to the game, Soto spoke fondly of his time in D.C., where he won the 2019 World Series and earned a batting title, three Silver Sluggers and two All-Star appearances. Ahead of his first at-bat, Soto received an ovation from the Nationals Park crowd. He stepped out to raise his helmet to the fans, and the ovation only grew louder.
“It’s where everything started,” Soto said. “It’s where my dreams started off. It feels amazing to get in that box, even if I’m on another team.”
Soto promptly reminded those fans what they’re missing. Swinging first pitch, he lined a 113.8-mph single off left-hander MacKenzie Gore — a former Padres top prospect and one of the players for whom Soto was traded.
Soto’s seventh-inning homer off Erasmo Ramírez was the 50th of his career at Nationals Park — but his first as a visitor. He readily admitted that his emotions were different on Tuesday than they were last August when he played for the Padres at Nationals Park for the first time.
“Definitely last year was a little bit more emotional,” Soto said. “This year was emotional, but it was more, like, happy. I felt more happy instead of being sad at being traded or anything like that. I was more excited to be out there, to play for those fans.”
He put on quite a show, too. Soto’s homer left his bat at an exit velocity of 113.1 mph. Coupled with his first-inning single, it marked the first time he’s scorched two batted balls at 113 mph or harder in the same game.
“He’s a smart guy,” said Ramírez, Soto’s teammate last year. “He knows who’s pitching. So he’s going to work depending on what you’re throwing to him. And every time he sees a mistake, he’s going to just do what he did today with me.”
After he’d rounded the bases and just before he stepped on home plate, Soto looked into the Nationals’ dugout and grinned. Later, he revealed that he was looking specifically at catching coach Henry Blanco, who was close with Soto during his time in D.C.
It was Blanco, specifically, for whom Soto had called his shot.
“[Blanco] asked me if I wanted to bunt,” Soto said. “I told him ‘No.’ … I told him I’m going to hit a homer and look at him.”
Soto’s blast gave San Diego a 5-3 lead, and after a Xander Bogaerts single, Jake Cronenworth broke the game open with a two-run shot. The Nationals had rallied to tie the game with a three-run fifth-inning rally that included a two-run home run from shortstop CJ Abrams — also a part of the Soto trade.
The Padres responded swiftly — the type of response they haven’t gotten often enough during their struggles over the past few weeks.
“It was great,” Cronenworth said. “It was the first time we’ve done that in a while.”
The Padres still haven’t solved their RISP woes; they went 0-for-9 with men in scoring position. But they’ve now scored seven runs in consecutive games, despite going 1-for-19 with RISP in that span.
Of course, they hit four homers on Tuesday, which helps. In addition to Soto and Cronenworth, Bogaerts and Brandon Dixon also went deep.
Then again, only one of those four Padres home runs drew cheers from the fans in Washington. Those fans won’t soon forget Soto’s exploits here.
“A lot of wins, a championship — I mean, there’s a lot of great memories,” Soto said.
And he insists on making new ones.