Nats salute Soto and Bell, then get trounced by Padres (updated)

First came the video tribute, with plenty of highlights of Juan Soto and Josh Bell in Nationals uniforms, plus a taped message from Soto himself to D.C. fans, prompting a big round of applause. Then came the announcement of the Padres’ starting lineup, featuring Soto batting second and Bell batting fourth, each of them receiving more applause.

Then came the top of the first, with Soto stepping to the plate to a standing ovation, taking off his helmet and saluting the crowd. Two batters later, Bell got the same treatment and responded in kind.

It all made for a heartfelt reunion of former players returning to South Capitol Street, even if they were traded away only 10 days ago. And then ultimately yet another frustrating night of baseball for the Nationals and their fans, who watched as Soto, Bell and the Padres beat them 10-5 in a game that only looked somewhat close because of a bottom-of-the-ninth rally.

"You never realize it until you're there," Soto said of the emotions he felt throughout the game. "When I stepped to the plate and saw all my teammates and everybody's clapping, it was a pretty cool moment."

Emotional as they both were to leave the Nats at the trade deadline, the two sluggers were equally excited to join a San Diego club in the thick of a pennant race. Soto went so far as to verbalize that before the game, saying: “When you’re on a winning team, the level of your game just goes higher and higher.”

Even with today’s news that star shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. was suspended 80 games after testing positive for a performance enhancing drug, the Padres remain in prime position to play meaningful games straight through September and potentially make a deep October run. The Nationals, of course, won’t be anywhere in that vicinity, falling tonight to a major-league-worst 37-77. Even if they miraculously play .500 ball the rest of the way, they’ll still finish with 101 losses.

"We're going to get better," manager Davey Martinez said. "It's going to take some time, but we're going to get better. Hang in there. I know it stinks, but hang in there."

That the Padres ran up the score as much as they did tonight despite receiving only modest production from Soto (2-for-6 with a double, one RBI and zero walks) and none from Bell (0-for-5, one walk) underscores how much talent they have. Five of their first eight runs were driven in by Manny Machado (two-run double) and Trent Grisham (three-run homer). Two more came later on Brandon Drury’s home run off Tyler Clippard.

Most of the damage came during a torturous, seven-run top of the fifth that saw the Padres send 12 batters to the plate, including Soto twice. The inning began with starter Cory Abbott on the mound, saw reliever Victor Arano retire only two of the nine batters he faced and then Erasmo Ramirez finally record the third out on one pitch.

The inning also was prolonged by the latest display of sloppy defense by Luis García. The young shortstop fielded Jake Cronenworth’s one-out chopper up the middle and attempted to turn a 6-3 double play on his own. The problem: García threw the ball to first before actually stepping on second, and his throw to first was late anyway, leaving everybody safe. The Padres would score four more runs before the inning ended.

"He knew, and I think his teammates got him and said: 'Just get an out in that situation,' " Martinez said. "That was a costly error. It cost us a bunch of runs after that."

García, who sat out Wednesday’s game in Chicago with a sore right knee, tweaked his right groin as he ran out a groundball in the bottom of the sixth and wound up departing the game before the top of the eighth.

"When I was about to step on first base, I felt it," García said, via interpeter Octavio Martinez. "It kind of pulled on me a little bit. It feels better now, but in that moment, I felt it."

A crowd of 35,390 gave the two former Nationals multiple standing ovations both before and during the early stages of the game. They applauded at the conclusion of the tribute video, which showed highlights from both players’ time in Washington and concluded with Soto’s taped message thanking fans: “You made me who I am today.”

The loudest and longest ovation of the evening came as Soto stepped up to bat in the top of the first. Young catcher Keibert Ruiz astutely took several steps toward the mound to give Soto the spotlight to himself, and the 23-year-old superstar took off his helmet and saluted the crowd in a genuine display of appreciation before lofting a flyball to left fielder Yadiel Hernandez for an easy out.

"It was an emotional day," he said. "I just tried to do my best."

Bell was given similar treatment for his first plate appearance, which ended with a walk.

The rest of the game felt somewhat normal, at least normal by 2022 Nationals standards. The home team barely produced at the plate, totaling six singles, five walks and one hit batter over the course of eight innings before putting forth a too-little, too-late rally in the bottom of the ninth. The pitching staff was done in by one ugly inning, aided by poor defense. The scoreboard malfunctioned, leaving fans with no idea of the score, the count or even the correct time for more than an hour.

Over in the visitors’ dugout, Soto and Bell probably were sad to see their friends suffering through the dog days of a miserable season, while at the same time thrilled to now be a part of something that could be special when it’s all said and done.

"Right now, I don't know how it's going to be," Soto said of his former team's future. "I know (Keibert Ruiz and Josiah Gray) are really good players. From what I know, they were really good players and really good teammates, and they're going to be fine. The team? I don't know. I just know what's going to happen here, and things are going to be good here."

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