"Weird" scene awaits as Soto, Bell come to D.C. as Padres

On the afternoon of Aug. 2, only hours after the Nationals had finalized a deal to send Juan Soto and Josh Bell to San Diego for six players, Davey Martinez was informed the Padres were scheduled to come to D.C. in a mere 10 days.

“Thanks,” the manager said in a wry, sarcastic tone as he contemplated what that would entail. “We gotta to get him out. We’ve got 10 days to think about that.”

Martinez had far more pressing matters to contend with over the last week and a half, namely how to put together a lineup capable of giving his worst-in-baseball club at least a chance of winning some games. The Nats have gone 2-7 since the trade deadline, underscoring just how daunting that challenge has been.

And now comes maybe the most difficult challenge yet: Facing Soto and Bell so soon after trading them. The three-game series that begins tonight at Nationals Park will be filled with emotion, not all of it positive as the scars of that franchise-altering transaction still burn.

It was an odd fate of scheduling that created this scenario. The Padres come to Washington only once per season. That trip just so happened to come right now. On top of that, the Nats make their lone trip of the year to San Diego next week, cramming their only seven head-to-head games into a 10-day window.

Soto and Bell aren’t the first big-name former Nationals to come back to town with a new club. But none of the previous ones came back so quickly after departing. Bryce Harper signed with the Phillies in February 2019, then played in D.C. as a visitor in April. Max Scherzer was traded to the Dodgers in July 2021, then pitched on South Capitol Street in April 2022 as a member of the Mets. Trea Turner came back 10 months after that trade. Anthony Rendon still hasn’t been in Washington since signing with the Angels in December 2019.

Not nearly enough time has passed for anyone to treat this weekend’s series as some kind of nostalgic reunion. No, it’s going to be awkward for both sides of the equation.

“It’s going to be weird,” Martinez admitted earlier this week. “It’s going to be really good to see them, but it’s going to be weird for them to walk by our clubhouse to go to the visiting clubhouse.”

Martinez has made a point to watch several Padres games since the trade happened, struck by how odd the guys look in that distinctive brown and yellow uniform. He knows Soto is 10-for-28 with two doubles, a triple, a homer, one RBI and six walks in his first eight games with his new team. Bell has gotten off to a slower start, going 6-for-26 with one double, two RBIs and six walks.

And what exactly will the Nationals’ strategy be when pitching to Soto?

“Yeah, we’re going to walk him,” Martinez said with a laugh.

He was joking. Sort of.

“I mean, we’ll come up with a game plan,” the manager continued. “But he’s got one of the best eyes I’ve ever seen for a hitter in the major leagues. The guy knows the strike zone better than anybody. It’s going to be a tough task, but we’ve got some guys who can get him out.”

The starters who will be tasked with trying to get Soto out this weekend are Cory Abbott, Aníbal Sánchez and Paolo Espino. Best of luck to them.

And best of luck to everyone who watches this series, whether in person at the ballpark or at home on television, to make sense of it all.

Ten days ago, Soto was the best hitter in baseball, and he’d never been anything but a National. Now he’s still the best hitter in baseball, but he’s coming to D.C. as something other than a National for the first of what will be several times in the years to come.

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