WASHINGTON — In his first big league homecoming Tuesday afternoon, Juan Soto took the field at Nationals Park early to meet his former teammates and coaches. They all did a little reminiscing. Soto had a message for them too.
“When it’s game time, I’m playing for the team on my chest,” he said. “I don’t care about that [ties to the Nationals] Then I told them.
“I told them, ‘I’m going to hit them with a homer.'”
And Juan Soto is a man of his word.
Or as Padres manager Bob Melvin said: “He’s good.
It’s not the first time Soto has returned to Nationals Park since the blockbuster deal that brought him to San Diego at last summer’s trade deadline. But it was still an obvious reunion.
Before the game, Soto spoke excitedly about his time in DC, winning the 2019 World Series, earning a batting title, three Silver Sluggers and two All-Star appearances. Soto received a standing ovation from the Nationals Park crowd before his first at-bat. He went out to raise his helmet to the fans, and the applause grew louder.
“This is where it all started,” Soto said. “That’s where my dream started. Even if I’m on another team, it feels amazing to be in that box.”
Soto immediately reminded those fans of what they were missing. He swung the first pitch 113.8 mph down the left field line to Mackenzie Gore — a former Padres top prospect and one of the players Soto traded for.
Soto’s seventh-inning homer off Erasmo Ramirez at Nationals Park was the 50th of his career — but his first as a guest. He immediately admitted that the feeling was different than it was on Tuesday, the first time he pitched for the Padres in Nationals Park last August.
“Definitely last year was a little more emotional,” Soto said. “This year has been emotional, but even happier. I felt more happy than sad about shopping or things like that. I’m really excited to be there and play for those fans.
He put on quite a show. Soto’s homer left the bat with an exit velocity of 113.1 mph. Along with his first-inning single, it was the first time he had fired two batters in a game at 113 mph or faster.
“He’s a smart guy,” said Ramirez, Soto’s teammate last year. “He knows who’s yelling. So it works based on what you throw at it. And every time he sees something wrong, he just does what he did today with me.
After rounding the bases and just before stepping into home plate, Soto looked toward the Nationals dugout and smiled. Later, he stated that he was particularly looking to capture trainer Henry Blanco, who had been close to Soto during his time in DC.
In particular, it was Blanco who called Soto his shot.
“[Blanco] He asked me if I wanted to touch him,” Soto said. “I said, ‘No.’ … I told him I’d hit Homer and see him.
Soto’s blast gave San Diego a 5-3 lead, and after Xander Bogaerts’ single, Jake Kronenwerth opened the game with a two-run shot. The Nationals rallied to tie the game with a three-run fifth-inning rally that included two runs off shortstop CJ Abrams — also part of the Soto trade.
The Padres responded quickly — a response they haven’t had enough of in their struggles over the past few weeks.
“It was great,” Kronenwerth said. “It was the first time we’ve done that in a while.”
The Padres still haven’t solved their RISP problems. They went 0-for-9 against the boys. But despite going 1 for 19 against RISP in the series, they have now scored seven runs.
Of course, they hit four homers on Tuesday, which helps. In addition to Soto and Kronenworth, Bogaerts and Brandon Dixon also went deep.
Again, only one of the Padres’ four home runs drew cheers from fans in Washington. Those fans won’t soon forget Soto’s exploits here.
“A lot of wins, championships — I mean, a lot of great memories,” Soto said.
And insists on making new ones.