WASHINGTON — With another hip pivot, and yet another activation of his sinister swing, Juan Soto ran a 95-mph show from Max Scherzer and hit a baseball over the left field wall in Nationals Park Monday night, increasingly impressing the crowd. In the minority at home.
And let the mind wander a little.
Three years ago, the new event was Bryce Harper, Philadelphia Philly, Max Scherzer, Washington National, on opening night, the unspeakable departure of one player against the current favorite.
Six months later, the Nationals won the world championship and had no shortage of schadenfreude as Harper and his $330 million contract stayed home.
Then came the plague, with an ace facing career-threatening injuries and another pounding every night every time he took the ball. A small, thin nervous system is revealed. A white flag was waved by the trade of Scherzer and Tria Turner.
Suddenly, one night before Major League Baseball’s trading deadline, Scherzer was walking down the hill where the New York Met and Sotos might, without a doubt, play their last game as a national player. While some in the crowd are trying to stand up to the moment and salute their racket with great fanfare, the home team’s record between 35-68 doesn’t match the road team’s coming in at 64-37 and half of it seems to be flowing at home.
So when Soto, who was still 23 but had been given a ticket out of town, hit Scherzer Stadium in the depths of the night, that allowed a split second of solace for nearly everyone involved.
“Come in at 6:02 on Thursday, I’m going to feel good no matter what happens,” Nationals coach Dave Martinez previously said.
Welcome to the major league baseball trade deadline.
It has turned into an industry of its own, and it’s almost certainly the most popular feature on the 12-month baseball calendar. However, the frenzy leading up to the trade deadline is an entirely different animal for those inside.
A flurry of deals on Monday brought a lot of high-profile action — bowler Frankie Montas is a New York Yankee, Orioles-inspired champion Tre Mancini will try to oust him as the Houston Astro, a group of painkillers — but the main event remains in place for 6 p.m. ET Tuesday night.
Soto is in the trade arena and while he may still not make a move until this winter, the chances of that happening now — and giving the team three shots at a banner with the generational hitter — are marginally improved.
In short, all the other big names are off the plate. If you don’t get a Montas, Luis Castillo (Marines) award, or all-star savior Josh Hader (Padres), you’re probably keeping most of your potential capital. Heck, even if you get one of these guys, you might not get out of it, as the amusing Padres and GM AJ Preller consistently prove.
He’s making great stage and Tuesday shouldn’t be any different, with the two Soto finalists generally – the Dodgers, Cardinals and Padres – ready to put their best and finalists on the table.
Of course, each jalapeño makes it easy to forget the inhabitants inside the aquarium.
This time around, it’s Soto, whose impending departure is a reminder that there’s no backside from the young star’s tenure that Citizens can’t turn into a death march. First, Harper was a top overall pick at 17, a top player at 19, and a top player on 22, almost all by design. In a simpler world, Agent Scott Boras would probably be supposed to leave, both sides getting to know each other and leaving with fond memories.
Instead, the final year and post-Harper era turned into an eerie haze of heavily postponed contract offers, a sombre march to free agency amid a complicit market and a false sense of “betrayal” from fans when Harper’s best show came on the road, from Phillies.
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MLB TRADE DEADLINE: Competitors on the deal wheel, Badris closes in on Josh Hader
For Soto, it was completely different – and we got to end it that way, too.
His rookie season was a circumstance-driven prodigy, he shot like a first-class Hagerstown cannon to D.C., a wave of injuries that forced him to face the seniors. What followed were five of the most dominant seasons by left batting that anyone under 25 could remember. His life evokes .426 percent base and plate approach to Ted Williams comparisons; His cold house at Games 1 and 6 of the 2019 World Championships has established himself, profoundly, as one of the worst men in the sport.
But after this championship season, the foundation around him has collapsed. Patrick Corbin, who signed a $140 million forever deal prior to 2019, has been Pinata ever since, appropriately failing to complete five rounds in Monday’s 7-3 loss. Stephen Strasbourg, who was re-raised for $245 million after being named World Player of the Year, has started eight games since then and is trying to recover from chest outlet syndrome, and his future is in great doubt.
Meanwhile, failures of the farm system camouflaged by grand draft picks from the past and appropriately aggressive free-agent moves are poorly exposed. The odometer is marked for Soto’s service time. More than two years left.
It was the headless revelation of a contract offer that looked good ($440 million!) but was actually the low-ball kind ($29 million, compared to the $35 million Strasbourg would get without a pitch) that was the quickest relative to the current industry level of hysteria. Soto will not sign it. Maybe the citizens won’t improve on it, or maybe they realize that rebuilding is a bigger pit than he imagined, and it’s unlikely he’ll be a shovel-ready feud by the time Soto can walk in.
So it’s going to be a deal, either sometime on Tuesday or during the winter, to get us into Monday’s drama. Soto has done nothing to sway his image as perhaps the best player in the game: He won last month’s Home Run Derby just hours after answering hour-long inquiries from the national media when details of his contract offer lay dormant.
His July slash, especially given the circumstances, was ridiculous: .315/ .495/ .616 with six Homers, Bundesian in his walking ability but garden balls that dared challenge him over the fence. Monday was no different: He plotted a walk from Scherzer, lit it up for his jogs and then charted two more walks.
Soto also stole a base, kicked out a runner in the house, and harassed a non-participant Scherzer with his mixture—”he didn’t want to look at me,” Soto says, “and I understand that”—and sounded more cheerful than he had been in days.
He admits that real relief may not come until he wakes up on Wednesday morning, wherever he is, and that he couldn’t help but fuel the applause and cheers from fans on Monday.
“It shows you that I control what I can control,” Soto said of his performance on Monday, although he could have argued last month. “Just go out there, keep playing hard for those fans out there. Like they were saying, they love me.”
“So I’ll give them back the love.”
And then it was quite different: While Soto was initially cruising after his eighth rally, the crowd slowly got up and gave sporadic applause, perhaps an awkward farewell that was just as awkward the moment we occupied.
How did it come to be that the perfectly healthy relationship between player and team quickly turned into a drama?
On Tuesday, the final action may be shown on a day that routinely impresses fans even while the film’s protagonists are emotionally punished.
“I feel like this was the worst season I’ve ever had, but at the end of the day this is the most I’ve learned,” Soto said of a season in which he tested his competitive discipline and patience.
“I learned about myself, the team, and the business.”
Now, less than 24 hours before the final business lesson is delivered.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: My teammates Juan Soto in what may be his last home game for the Nationals.
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