Juan Soto homers in loss to Mets as trade deadline nears

Juan Soto homers in loss to Mets as trade deadline nears

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Juan Soto’s final at-bat Monday night wasn’t unusual: He walked to open the bottom of the eighth inning for his third free pass of the game.

What happened afterward wasn’t so typical: As Soto took off his equipment along the first base line, he received a standing ovation from the fans at Nationals Park. They were acknowledging the possibility that they had just watched his last plate appearance in a Washington Nationals uniform. The same went for Josh Bell, who lined out in the ensuing at-bat.

Neither appearance meant much in Monday’s 7-3 loss to the New York Mets, but they could mean much 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 the fans before heading into the dugout.

“I’m controlling what I can control,” Soto said. “Just going out there and playing hard for those fans out there. Because like [the fans] were saying, they love me. So I’m going to love them back.”

Back in the fourth, Soto hit his 21st home run of the season — off former teammate Max Scherzer. He took his time rounding the bases and touching home plate. He walked to the dugout as the fans behind it stood and clapped a bit longer to savor the moment.

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Scherzer surely understood Soto’s situation all too well: He spent six-plus years with Washington before being traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers with Trea Turner at last year’s deadline, a move that sent 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’re 31 games behind the first-place Mets in the National League East.

Soto and Bell got to 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. Initially, it appeared that would put runners on second and third, but right fielder Starling Marte threw the ball to second — where no teammate was present. Soto dashed home and Bell advanced to third — there was no Met covering that base, either — as Washington grabbed the lead.

Soto would face Scherzer two more times, homering and then walking in the fifth. In every at-bat, he did his signature shuffle and stared Scherzer down.

“[Scherzer] don’t like it,” Soto said with a smile. “He puts 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 — it doesn’t matter how good our relationship is.”

Soto flashed his arm when he threw out Tomás Nido at the plate to end a second inning that could’ve been worse for starter Patrick Corbin, who was laboring. Despite Soto’s contributions, New York still led 3-1.

Washington finished with just six hits. Following Soto’s home run in the fourth, Luis García singled home Yadiel Hernandez to make it 4-3. Bell, a pending free agent, finished 1 for 4, but Soto’s final line was fitting if it was his last game as a National: 1 for 1 with three walks, two runs and that 421-foot blast.

“Facing a guy like Max, he had great at-bats,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “Kept the ball in the zone, fouled off some good pitches, got a ball to hit and hit it far.”

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Is anyone used to seeing Scherzer pitch for the Mets? The Nationals and Mets have faced off 11 times this season, but this was only Washington’s second glimpse of Scherzer. The sight of their former ace playing for a division rival still doesn’t feel normal to Martinez.

“It still is weird,” he said before the game. “When you see him, you kind of reminisce in your head. But then I say: ‘Okay, we got to go out there and try to beat this guy. Let’s figure out how to do that.’ ”

How did Corbin fare? He threw 90 pitches and allowed four runs in 4⅓ innings. He was coming off his worst outing of the season — he didn’t make it out of the first inning against the Dodgers on Wednesday — but he was able to retire the side in order to start Monday’s game.

But his next two innings looked a lot like what Nationals fans have become accustomed over the past two-plus seasons. In the second, the Mets scored three runs on five hits and a walk, with Soto’s assist finally stopping the bleeding.

Pete Alonso hit a 110.9-mph bullet off Corbin in the next inning that just cleared the wall in left-center for his 27th home run. It took Corbin 24 pitches to get out of a scoreless fourth, and after he retired Francisco Lindor for the first out of the fifth, his night was complete. His ERA rose slightly to 6.57, and his record fell to 4-15.

Lindor’s three-run homer off Steve Cishek in the sixth put the game away.

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