Soto, Bell ready for emotional return to Nationals Park

Juan Soto was here in April 2019 when Bryce Harper returned to Nationals Park for the first time as a Phillie. He was here this April when Max Scherzer returned to Nationals Park for the first time as a Met. He was here this May when Trea Turner returned to Nationals Park for the first time as a Dodger.

It was strange seeing former teammates, superstars who made their names here in D.C. and in some cases won their first championships with him, come back wearing different uniforms, eliciting different reactions from fans that loved them when they played here and now had to get used to the idea of them playing for someone else.

Could Soto have imagined he’d find himself in that exact position so soon, as he will be tonight when the 23-year-old star takes the field on South Capitol Street not as a member of the Nationals but instead the Padres?

“At that moment, I never think about it,” he said today before a throng of reporters packed into the visitors’ dugout prior to batting practice. “As soon as I get traded, I really think about it, and how cool the fans were with them and how much they enjoyed it. And I’m just going to try to do the same thing.”

The scene tonight should be overwhelmingly positive, with Nationals fans showering Soto – and former and current teammate Josh Bell – with love in his return. That will help make it a little easier for them. But that doesn’t mean it will feel normal, not while the emotions are still so fresh from a trade that happened only 10 days ago.

“It was a lot of emotions,” Soto of his final hours with the Nats on Aug. 2. “I said it before: I cried the whole morning. It was pretty tough to go through it. But at the end of the day, I really understand that it’s a business, and you’ve got to do the best for yourself. They did the best for them, and I’m happy with them. No hard feelings or anything like that. I understand that it’s a business. I say to myself: Just think and keep moving forward. Whatever happens, it happens. I just have to keep going forward.”

Soto and Bell went to the ballpark after learning the trade was happening so they could pack up their stuff and share in some final moments with the Nationals coaching and training staff and their teammates. All the while, they knew they’d be back here in short order.

“It wasn’t really goodbye,” Bell said. “It was: ‘See you next week.’ ”

That applied to Bell’s family, as well. His wife, Lia, and their infant daughter, Noa, actually stayed in D.C. this whole time so they wouldn’t be so rushed to pack up their lives, knowing Josh would be coming right back to town so soon.

This first stint with the Padres has included the full gamut of highs and lows. Soto and Bell helped them run away to a 9-1 victory over the Rockies in their Aug. 3 debut before a raucous crowd at Petco Park. But that was immediately followed by a six-game losing streak during which this potent lineup was mostly held in check before the team won back-to-back games over the Giants prior to this trip, scoring 20 combined runs in the process.

“It’s been pretty cool,” Soto said of the adjustment. “It’s been pretty nice. These guys in there, it’s been amazing. They really welcomed me. It’s just great. It feels like home right now. It feels amazing. The energy in there was incredible.”

The energy inside Nationals Park this weekend should be palpable, in a different way. Local fans, left with a shell of the team that won a title less than three years ago, will cheer for the two latest stars to depart while lamenting the current state of this franchise. For Soto, Bell and the Padres, this is an opportunity to keep winning and keep pushing toward a playoff berth and an opportunity to win that franchise’s first championship come October.

And yes, San Diego’s two newest stars feel that.

“I’m going to give my 150 percent every day,” Soto said. “When you’re on a winning team, the level of your game just goes higher and higher. I like those guys, but now I’m on this side. I’m going to try my best to win a game. Don’t think I’m going to play easy.”

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