Before his first-at bat Tuesday night, Juan Soto took a moment to kick around the dirt in the batter’s box. Then he stepped out to tip his helmet to the Washington Nationals faithful, who again gave him a standing ovation. There was Soto, a pivotal part of the Nationals’ past. Staring at him from the mound was MacKenzie Gore with shortstop CJ Abrams not too far behind him, two key pieces of the Nationals’ present and future.
Last year, the Nationals and San Diego Padres had faced off over two series after August’s trade sent Soto and Josh Bell to San Diego for six players. But Gore watched from the dugout as he recovered from elbow inflammation, making this game at Nationals Park his first showdown with his former team and the all-star it traded him for.
After acknowledging the crowd, Soto moved back into the box and nodded at Gore — and then it was all business. He ripped a first-pitch single 113 mph, then Xander Bogaerts hit a two-run, opposite-field homer. As Gore struggled, Abrams made the most of his matchup with his former team, hitting a two-run homer in the fifth inning during a rally that let the Nationals tie the score. But the Padres responded with four runs over the next two innings — including a Soto solo homer in the seventh — to earn a 7-4 victory.
“Just not executing pitches when I need to,” Gore said. “There’s some good in all these starts. But just consistently, I’m not executing pitches. I got to be better. This one’s on me tonight. It’s tough to win when the starter goes 4⅔, so I have to be better.”
Abrams, Gore and Soto — three key parts of one of the biggest trades in MLB history — will forever be intertwined. Their on-field matchups always will hold a bit more significance. The Padres believed acquiring a generational talent in Soto — along with the slugging Bell as a rental — would put them over the top. The Nationals believed trading a generational talent in Soto would provide the kind of young talent — including Gore and Abrams — that would help them build another contender.
But the Padres, coming off a loss to Philadelphia in the National League Championship Series and after adding Bogaerts in the offseason, arrived at Nationals Park with a 21-26 record. That was just one game better than the rebuilding Nationals, who have played a cleaner brand of baseball this season and found surprising success doing so.
Soto entered Tuesday with an underwhelming .242 batting average and an un-Soto-like .822 OPS in 99 games with the Padres; he had hit .284 with a .944 OPS during four-plus seasons with the Nationals. But his 3-for-4 outing Tuesday raised those numbers. Gore, whose ERA climbed to 3.88 after he allowed three runs in 4⅔ innings, and Abrams have shown flashes of potential but are still seeking consistency.
Soto said before the game that he still gets emotional coming back to Washington. But, at least externally, those in both clubhouses weren’t putting extra emphasis on this game.
“We’ve had an unbelievable time together here, but we’ve kind of moved on,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “This is a new era for us, and the players that we got back for him have been doing really well, so we’re excited about that. But I can always say that I miss him.”
“When it’s game time, I’m playing for the team I have on my chest,” Soto said. “I don’t care about them. I told them I’m going to hit a homer.”
“All the hype about it is going to come, but ... we just got to treat it like any other game, trying to go get a [win],” Abrams said.
Gore, clearly amped up, started the game by striking out Fernando Tatis Jr. with a 98.8-mph fastball — the fastest pitch of his career — before Soto singled two batters later and Bogaerts brought them both home. Gore labored early because of wayward fastball command. He threw 52 pitches in the first two innings and walked a pair.
Gore got the best of Soto in his second at-bat, striking him out as he chased a slider out of the strike zone. But in the fourth inning, Gore allowed a solo shot to Brandon Dixon on a first-pitch fastball that he left over the plate to give the Padres (22-26) a 3-0 lead. In Soto’s third at-bat in the fifth, he singled again. Gore threw 25 pitches in the inning; when he walked Jake Cronenworth with two outs, his night was over after 103 pitches.
“We got to get him more in the zone. We got to get him down again,” Martinez said. “The stuff is electric, as we all know.”
But then came Abrams, who launched a two-run homer into the second deck in the bottom of the fifth — he tossed his bat after bringing his team within a run. Lane Thomas followed with a solo shot as Washington (20-28) tied it at 3.
The Padres answered in the sixth. After a single, a walk and a groundout, Erasmo Ramirez allowed Tatis to hit a flyball to right; Thomas threw a strike toward the plate, but first baseman Dominic Smith cut it off, allowing San Diego to take a 4-3 lead.
Ramirez allowed two home runs in the seventh — a two-run blast by Cronenworth preceded by the solo shot from Soto. The ball came off his bat at 113.1 mph and sailed 441 feet into center field. He had provided a familiar sight for Nationals fans — and a reminder of the talent that will make this matchup memorable for the foreseeable future.
“It’s fun playing against former teammates and friends,” Abrams said. “It’s fun playing against them. It didn’t go our way, but we’ll get them tomorrow.”