“I never thought they would do it. I was thinking they would try to keep me and try to rebuild the team with me there. I was surprised,” Soto said in the Padres clubhouse as he held up the other cleat. The New York Mets defeated the Nationals on a television hanging a few yards away. “Deep down in my heart, I was thinking they wouldn’t do it.”
That Soto found himself there, joking with friend and fellow young star Tatis, introducing himself to infielder Ha-Seong Kim with “nice to meet you” and talking about Max Scherzer’s love with catcher Austin Nola, it is a transformational development for the team he left. and the team with him. It could also be game-changing for Soto and Josh Bell.
No 24 hours after they boarded a private plane bound for San Diego When the Padres paid off, Soto and Bell found superstar Manny Machado in the team’s final game under the California sun.
“To go from a team that has no chance to come all the way here, it’s a great feeling,” Soto said. “It’s a new beginning for me. This year, it’s just a new start, a new feeling to go out there and give more of what I have.”
Before either of them could worry about going out there at all, the two were sent through Petco Park for social media shoots and introductory interviews, sitting side by side. General Manager AJ Preeller and owner Peter Seidler.
Preeller told Soto a story about when a Padres assistant manager learned the young star was hitting in Point Loma, not far away. He flew there after his successful rookie season to work with a hitting coach, “working on his craft,” Preeller said. Preeller recalled the team’s pursuit of Soto as a teenager in the Dominican Republic — a pursuit that ended, he joked, with Preeller rating someone else ahead of him. But Preeller pointed to that hitting session in January as a moment when he decided his team would try to get him if he could.
The GM also joked that Bell — the slugging switch-hitter with an .877 on-base-plus-slugging percentage entering Wednesday — “hadn’t been bad with a throw-in” before. making it clear that Bell was much more than that. From then on, Soto’s smile stole the evening. He flashed it when he was asked about the Padres’ lineup, which is still waiting for Tatis to come back from injury and still waiting for Machado to warm up again.
“I wish the other pitchers the best of luck,” Soto said with a smile.
He blew it up again when he explained that member Nick Martinez, who was wearing No. 22 with the Padres until a few hours ago, wearing a fishing boat instead of the number.
“I was very surprised. I’ve never seen anything like that. I saw a few guys trying to get numbers and what they gave away. But when he asked me for a boat, I was shocked and surprised,” said Soto. “I thought that was too good, but I tried to explain to him that I will try to get him a very nice watch and he accepted.”
The implications of Soto finding himself in this lineup after a calendar year could be the main focus of every opponent’s game plan far beyond a few more smiles. Dear new manager, Bob Melvinsaid he’s not positive in what order he’ll hit Soto, Machado and Bell — but he expected Soto and Bell to be the difference right away, not only because of the bats around them but also because of the energy of Petco Park .
“I’m going to keep walking. I’m not going to try to be a superhero,” Soto said. “But it will definitely be more exciting. There will be more opportunities to bring guys home. I will have more chances to win games.”
A person close to Soto said he was getting down at times with the Nationals, worried that the first half would be frustrating (he was hitting .246 at the time of the trade – nearly 50 points shy of his career average) but more frustrating if it was. Washington traded away everyone else but kept it. After the trade, he expressed his excitement about the opportunity to play “real football” again, the person said.
Soto’s swagger was never exactly swagger. But here, with talent and energy around him again, he could rise.
“We talked about it when I was talking to these guys: They’re going to feel the excitement in this ballpark,” Melvin said. “It’s always exciting, but today will probably take it to another level. We will all feel that.”
Soto has never played for a major league manager not named Dave Martinez, and he will notice that too. He admitted saying goodbye to Martinez just before leaving Nationals Park on Tuesday was one of the hardest parts of a long day that began when he woke up to a call from agent Scott Boras telling him a trade was likely. this time. Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo also called him, telling him nothing was official but that something was going on. He said he was still surprised when it happened, although Boras explained to him the rationale for the deal, although he has come to understand in the last few months that no one is immune from the business of baseball.
“I have no hard feelings towards those boys. I still feel good about what they did for me. That’s the first team, my first team, the team that makes me a professional player,” Soto said. “They gave me a chance to come to the big leagues. They besieged me. I will always be grateful for that. There are no hard feelings from all of this.”
Soto hopes some brown and gold feathers will arrive soon. Meanwhile, he strutted around the clubhouse in those red and white ones, shaking hands with new teammates. At one point he stopped and looked to his right, noticing Bell’s new locker across the clubhouse.
“JB!” he said as he walked around, taking a slightly more circuitous route back to his own locker than he probably would a week from now.
When he ran into Petco Park for the first time, he directed the fans in the stands like he used to at Nationals Park. He looked a little hesitant. So they did. But four pitches into his Padres career, he was safe at first base. Five at-bats into his Padres career, he had scored a run. After all, for Soto, home is a big league batter’s box, no matter what color his feathers are as they float through the dirt.