Juan Soto returns to Nationals Park to standing ovation from fans

As Juan Soto began the walk to the visitors’ clubhouse at Nationals Park on Friday for the first time as an opposing player, he passed photos hanging on either side of the tunnel showing past Washington players — a gallery that already includes an image of him, smiling in a blue jersey with a red No. 22.

Then he ran into reliever Sean Doolittle, a teammate on Washington’s 2019 World Series-winning squad, and they hugged and laughed before Soto ducked into the San Diego Padres’ clubhouse.

The Nationals traded their homegrown, 23-year-old star to the Padres on Aug. 2, a move that would have been shocking a year or even months earlier. But not much has gone right for Washington since that 2019 title, making a long-term deal with Soto unlikely and motivating general manager Mike Rizzo to swap him and first baseman Josh Bell for a slew of San Diego’s top prospects.

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Ten days later, Soto was back — and a bit surprised by the horde of reporters who formed a cramped horseshoe around him in the Padres’ dugout before the game.

"I didn’t know that so many people (were) going to be around me," Soto said. "I know it’s the media and everything, but it feels kind of weird."

Soto was struck by the oddity of returning to Washington so quickly after the trade. He realized his return trip was less than two weeks away and told teammates, "It’s not goodbye, it’s see you later."

He said fitting in with the Padres has been "amazing" and an easy transition.

Soto made his debut on May 20, 2018, at age 19, and evolved from eye-popping teenager to World Series champion to a future free agent the Nationals felt they could not afford. His potential destination was the dominant storyline in baseball ahead of the trade deadline.

"I think people know me more now," Soto said. "All the transitions, it’s just the same thing. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how big I am or how much the people know me. I’m still going to be the same guy. Anywhere I’m going, I’m going to be the same Juan Soto. So for me, for my family, for my friends, for my teammates, I’m going to be the same guy every day. So the transitions aren’t that bad. I’ve just been pretty cool with it, and still being the same Juan."

Fans in Soto jerseys watched him take batting practice in a brown long-sleeve shirt and high brown socks. Before the game, Soto expressed he wasn't sure how Nationals fans would receive him during his return, but added that he’s proud of what he achieved in Washington, where he became one of baseball’s best hitters and most popular players.

"I don’t know what they’re going to do," Soto said. "I don’t know what they’re going to have for me or anything like that. But I just know I gave my 100 percent every time I was in that clubhouse and with that team. Every day they saw me coming out to the field, they saw my 100 percent. I don’t know how they’re going to react. But for me, I gave all that I had."

What Nationals fans had for Soto was a standing ovation during his first at-bat, the ultimate sign of respect a fan base can give.

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Soto raised his helmet, then hugged Nationals catcher Keibert Ruiz before stepping into the familiar batter’s box.

"Pretty cool," Soto said. "It was a pretty exciting moment for me."

As part of the welcome back, the Nationals also put together a highlight package of Soto, and Soto thanked Washington fans in a prerecorded video he put together Aug. 7. 

Soto said he was happy to see his "teammates" again before quickly correcting himself to say "ex-teammates."

23-year-old star had two hits during the game, and the San Diego Padres beat the Nationals 10-5.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.