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L.A. fans clear in desire for Juan Soto, who shows them what he does

The coveted outfielder belts a two-run triple in 4-1 Nationals win

Washington Nationals' Juan Soto, right, hits a two RBI triple as Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Will Smith watches during the fifth inning of a baseball game Monday, July 25, 2022, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

LOS ANGELES — Juan Soto slowly peeked over his shoulder Monday, perhaps unsure of how many people he’d find in the small visitors’ clubhouse at Dodger Stadium. When he saw a pack closing in, mostly reporters who cover the Dodgers, Soto grinned and told Josh Bell they were looking for him. Then Soto stood, put his red hat on backward and nodded to the group, letting them know he was ready for questions.

Then he showed just how ready he was.

Just as during the all-star break here, the local media tried to get Soto to say something, anything, about potentially being traded to the Dodgers. But before the Nationals’ 4-1 win— and before Soto quieted the crowd with a two-run triple in the fifth — the 23-year-old had others plans. Soon, Paolo Espino, Andrés Machado, Victor Arano, Hunter Harvey, Carl Edwards Jr. and Kyle Finnegan held the Dodgers to a run on eight hits. The offense stirred awake on Yadiel Hernandez’s solo homer in a four-run fifth. Tony Gonsolin, who had not yielded a hit before Hernandez tagged him, received his first loss after entering 11-0 with a 2.02 ERA. But the day began with Soto’s artful deflections.

Did coming to Chavez Ravine make him think about playing for the first-place Dodgers? “Not at all. I think about my Home Run Derby championship, my award, I’m happy to have it here.”

Was he surprised fans chanted “Future Dodger” to him during the All-Star Game last week? “Obviously, I was really surprised. But I was more surprised to play center field that day.”

Have big moments in the past — his huge homer off Clayton Kershaw in Game 5 of the National League Division Series in 2019, his recent Home Run Derby win — made this feel like a second home? “Not at all. I enjoy the moments not only here. I enjoy it every time at every stadium I go.”

Does he like the West Coast? “It’s really far from home.”

Did Trea Turner attempt to recruit him during the all-star festivities? “I tried to recruit him!”

To Washington? “Yeah, why not? He’s happy where he’s at but I really tried to do my best to get him back.”

For real though, would Soto be excited to join the Dodgers? “I never think about it because I never see myself in any of that. I’ve always been loyal to the Nationals, I’ve always been there for them. Everywhere I’m going, they try to pull me out of my team.”

Indeed they do. That’s what happens when a club is fielding offers for one of the sport’s best players. Seeing that the Arizona Diamondbacks are not expected to pursue Soto, he didn’t receive this attention in Phoenix over the weekend. But in Los Angeles, where the Dodgers dealt for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner last summer, Soto was the undisputed focus.

The home fans cheered when Soto was announced during pregame introductions. At the start of his first at-bat against Gonsolin, they yelled “Future Dodger!” some more. From there, though, Soto was only part of Washington’s effort. Ahead of his triple in the fifth, Ehire Adrianza, Victor Robles and César Hernández extended the inning with three straight two-out singles. In the next half, Manager Dave Martinez aggressively hooked Espino at 54 pitches, leaving Machado with two inherited runners.

Machado rewarded his effort by stranding the bases loaded. He struck out Mookie Betts looking in the process. Arano then threw all eight of his pitches for strikes in a clean sixth. While yielding two hits to Trea Turner, the Nationals held Betts, Freddie Freeman and Will Smith hitless in 13 plate appearances. The bullpen worked five scoreless and left eight men on base. Soto, meanwhile, added a single and walk for good measure.

The looming trade deadline is 6 p.m. on Aug. 2. By then, Soto will know if he’s heading elsewhere or sticking with the team he signed with at 16 out of the Dominican Republic. And in the thick of so much uncertainty, of the constant questions about his future, he seems ready for that day.

“It’s been a tough week,” Soto said. “And to get to see if I’m going to stay there or if I’m going, it’s going to really flush my mind.”

Why did Martinez move Robles to the leadoff spot? “I’ve been thinking about it and he’s swinging the bat well,” the manager said of Robles batting atop the order for the first time since last August. “I mean, if you think about what he does when he gets on, he causes a bunch of havoc. So I talked to him today and I told him ‘I want you to lead off and we’re going to lead you off for a while’ and see what he does. He’s done it in the minor leagues. He had good success with it. So I want to see if we can jumpstart our offense and get some kind of energy.”

For a while? It felt like a fair follow-up after Martinez briefly hit Robles leadoff in 2021 before shelving the idea. Robles finished Monday’s victory with a first-pitch flyout, a single, a looking strikeout and check-swing strikeout with two outs and the bases loaded in the fifth.

“Yeah, I’m going to lead him off for a while now,” Martinez answered. “Yeah ... so we’ll see.”

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