Soto prepared for welcome back from Nats fans

When he stepped to the plate at Nationals Park nine months ago for the first time as a member of the Padres, Juan Soto was greeted with a sustained standing ovation from the crowd.

Anecdotally, it felt like the loudest and warmest ovation any former Nationals player has received in his return with another team. Louder than the ovation for Max Scherzer as a Met. Louder than the ovation for Trea Turner as a Dodger. Certainly friendlier than the reaction for Bryce Harper.

That moment stuck with Soto, who only 10 days earlier had been traded to San Diego along with Josh Bell for six players in a deal that altered both franchises.

“It means a lot,” the 24-year-old slugger said today. “It means I did a good job over here. It feels great to hear those cheers for you. That means they’re really proud of the championship that we bring back.”

Soto will forever be remembered for playing a major role in delivering Washington its first World Series title in 95 years. Scherzer, Turner, Anthony Rendon, Stephen Strasburg and countless others were vital to the cause as well, but Soto for some reason stands out from the rest, perhaps because he had only just turned 21 during the series but performed like a seasoned superstar.

And that connection will probably stick with Soto and Nationals fans forever, no matter where he ends up spending the rest of his career.

“The friends I made,” Soto said when asked today what he remembers most about the 2019 season. “All the guys. All the coaches. The players. They just don’t become friends and teammates. They become my family. We all came together as a family. We finished the World Series, and we’re still in touch. We’re all together, and we always feel like we’re friends and family.”

Soto’s return to South Capitol Street tonight doesn’t carry quite the same emotions as last summer’s series against the Padres did. The trade was still so fresh back then. It feels less so now, on both sides of the equation.

“It feels like I’ve known him since he was a kid, right?” manager Davey Martinez said. “He was here when he was very young. We had an unbelievable time together here. But we’ve kind of moved on. This is a new era for us, and the players we got back for him have been doing really well. We’re excited about that. But I can always say I miss him. I really do. He was a big part of what we did here in ’19, and that will never go away.”

Soto, coincidentally, tonight will be facing MacKenzie Gore, one of the five prospects the Nats got from the Padres in the trade. Martinez’s biggest concern today: Making sure Gore controls his emotions and pitches effectively against his former club.

There was time to catch up with Soto earlier in the afternoon, though. A number of Nationals coaches, players and staffers wearing red and blue came out to the field to chat with their friend clad in bright gold and brown.

Later, as the Nats took batting practice, Soto was back on the field, chatting with and signing autographs for fans wearing both of his teams’ apparel. From the upper deck, a lone voice shouted down: “Come home, Soto!”

A free agent after the 2024 season, Soto surely will have his pick of several suitors. Whether the Nationals, who already saw him turn down a 15-year, $440 million offer last summer that prompted the trade discussions in the first place, are going to be in the running remains to be seen.

Does Soto ever envision the possibility of coming back?

“I never think about that,” he insisted. “Right now, I’m just thinking about playing for the Padres. I’m part of the Padres. I’m here to help the Padres bring a championship to San Diego. I haven’t thought about any of that. I’m just here moving forward to help the Padres as much as I can.”

Whether it happens or not, Soto figures to always be warmly welcomed back to Washington. Fans here adored him from the day he arrived as a precocious 19-year-old who had been playing in Single-A only a few weeks earlier.

Soto hasn’t forgotten about that.

“I think my debut was one of the biggest moments that I had here,” he said. “It was a great moment to be out there, have the fans cheer for me. I don’t even know how they knew me at that time, and it was a great welcome. That’s one of the memories I’m always going to cherish.”

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