Nats preparing for emotional series vs. Soto, Padres

When Juan Soto takes the field at Nationals Park tonight in a Padres uniform, it will still sting for any number of people who still have a hard time fathoming the 24-year-old slugger wearing anything other than a curly W on his head.

It might, however, sting a little less if MacKenzie Gore and CJ Abrams do their part to lift the home team to victory, reminding all those suffering souls why Soto was traded in the first place and why the Nationals could emerge from the wreckage in a better place when it’s all said and done.

This isn’t Soto’s first trip back to D.C. That already happened last August, only 10 days after he was dealt to San Diego along with Josh Bell for six players, five of them promising young prospects. The emotions were still raw at that time, and the image of perhaps the greatest player in Nats history coming up to bat against them was tough for everyone to take.

The passage of time eases some of the pain. But perhaps even more than that, the emergence of the first two of the prospects acquired in the trade at the big league level helps make it far more tolerable. No, neither Gore nor Abrams has come close yet to matching Soto’s status. But each has offered up enough this season to make you believe stardom is on the horizon.

Gore, in particular, has stood out. Unable to make his Nationals debut last season because he was still recovering from an elbow injury in August and September, he’s now nine starts into his Nats career. And the results, while erratic, have been overwhelmingly positive in the big picture.

The 24-year-old left-hander enters tonight’s game with a 3.69 ERA, a number no qualifying Nationals starter has ended a season with since 2019. His 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings currently rank third in the National League behind the Braves’ Spencer Strider and the Reds’ Hunter Greene and would be best by any Nats qualifying starter in club history not named Max Scherzer.

Gore has already shown an ability to rise to the occasion, most notably during his 10-strikeout dismantling of the Mets at Citi Field last month. Tonight, though, offers a new challenge: Facing the team that drafted and then traded him for the first time.

“He’s going to be a little antsy,” manager Davey Martinez said with a laugh. “We’ve just got to get him to calm down a little bit, get him to understand what he wants to do and pitch to his strengths. We’ve got to keep an eye on him, slow his heartbeat down a little bit. I know he wants to go out there and do well against his former team. I mean, I’ve been there. We’ve all been there. But we’ve got to control his heartbeat a little and tell him: ‘Pitch like you’ve been pitching.’”

Abrams actually did face the Padres last season when the teams met in San Diego only days after he was called up from Triple-A Rochester. The 22-year-old shortstop notched a hit in each of the three games of that series, helping the Nationals win two of them.

Martinez said Sunday he planned to talk to both Abrams and Gore in advance of this series and help them get their minds in the right place for the emotions that are sure to be stirred these next three days.

“I know your former guys are coming in, and you’ve got a lot of buddies over there. Just remember you play for the Washington Nationals now,” the manager said. “You’re doing good. Don’t change a thing.”

What, though, about the return of Soto (and, to a lesser extent, Nelson Cruz) to South Capitol Street? Has the passage of nine months made it any easier to welcome him back to the ballpark he called home for 4 2/3 seasons, blossoming into a superstar and World Series champion?

“I’m excited to see him,” Martinez said. “He’s still on the other team, so when the game starts, it’s a different story. But it’ll be weird. He did a lot for us in this organization. But we’re going to bang heads come Tuesday.”

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