Juan Soto’s final at-bat on Monday night was not unusual: he went for his third free pass of the game to open the bottom of the eighth inning.
What happened next was not so typical: As Soto took off his equipment down the first base line, he received a standing ovation from fans at Nationals Park. He was acknowledging the possibility that he had just seen his last plate appearance in a Washington Nationals uniform. The same was the case with Josh Bale, who was out in the ensuing bat.
Neither appearance meant much in Monday’s 7-3 loss to the New York Mets, but they may mean more by Tuesday’s 6 p.m. Trade deadline. Soto knew it, too — during a pitching change later in the inning, he tipped his helmet to fans before heading to the dugout.
“I’m controlling what I can control,” Soto said. “Just going out there and playing hard for those fans. Because like [the fans] were saying, they love me. So I will love them again.”
In the fourth, Soto hit his 21st home run of the season – off former teammate Max Scherzer. He took his time strolling the bases and touching home plate. He walked to the dugout as the fans behind him stood and clapped briefly to savor the moment.
Scherzer certainly understood Soto’s situation very well: He spent six-plus years with Washington before being traded for Trey Turner to the Los Angeles Dodgers at last year’s deadline, sending the 2019 World Series champions into a rebuilding phase.
Scherzer’s presence on the mound was another reminder of how much an organization can change this time of year. Nine more innings passed Monday night, and Soto and Bell were still with the Nationals. But a lot could change in the coming hours.
At the trade deadline last year, the Nationals were 47-55. After Monday’s loss, they are 35-69 – the worst record in the majors. They are 31 games behind the first place Mets in the National League East.
Soto and Bell got Scherzer in the first inning – with the help of some poor defense. Soto worked a full count, two-out walk, then Bell doubled down the right field line. At first, it appeared the runners would be on second and third, but right fielder Starling Marte threw the ball to second – where no teammate was present. Soto reached home and Bell advanced to third — there were no Mets on base as Washington took the lead.
Soto would face Scherzer two more times, homering and then in the fifth. In each at-bat, he changed his signature and looked down at Scherzer.
“[Scherzer] doesn’t like it,” Soto said with a laugh. “He keeps his face down. … He doesn’t want to look at me. And I understand him because he’s doing his job. And he’s giving 100 percent — no matter how good our relationship is.
Soto flashed his arm when he threw out Tomas Nido at the plate to end the second inning, which could have been bad for struggling starter Patrick Corbin. Despite Soto’s contribution, New York still leads 3-1.
Washington managed just six hits. After Soto’s home run in the fourth, Luis Garcia singled home Yadiel Hernandez to make it 4-3. Bell, a pending free agent, finished 1 for 4, but Soto’s final line was perfect if it was his last game as a National: 1 for 1 with three walks, two runs scored and a 421-foot blast.
“When facing a guy like Max, he had a great at-bat,” manager Dave Martinez said. “Put the ball in the zone, fouled off some good pitches, got the ball to hit and hit it pretty far.”
Anyone used to seeing Scherzer pitch for the Mets? The Nationals and Mets have met 11 times this season, but this was Washington’s second glimpse of Scherzer. Martinez still doesn’t feel normal playing their former ace for a division rival.
“It’s still weird,” he said before the game. “When you see him, you kind of get a memory in your head. But then I say: ‘Okay, we’ve got to go out there and try to kill this guy. Let’s figure out how to do that.”
How does Corbyn fare? He threw 90 pitches and allowed four runs in 4⅓ innings. He was coming off his worst game of the season — he didn’t make it out of the first inning against the Dodgers on Wednesday — but was able to retire the lineup to start Monday’s game.
But his next two innings looked like what Nationals fans have grown accustomed to over the past two-plus seasons. In the second, the Mets scored three runs on five hits and a walk, with Soto finally stopping the bleeding.
Pete Alonso hit a 110.9-mph bullet to Corbin in the next inning that cleared the left-center wall for his 27th home run. It took Corbin 24 pitches to get out of a scoreless fourth, and his night was over after he retired Francisco Lindor for the first out of the fifth. His ERA rose slightly to 6.57 and his record fell to 4-15.
Lindor scored three runs off Steve Cishek in the sixth