Juan Soto leaves lasting impression as Nationals fall to Mets

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

What happened next wasn’t so typical: As Soto took off his gear along the first baseline, he received a standing ovation from the fans at Nationals Park. They recognized the possibility that they had just watched his last plate appearance in a Washington Nationals uniform. So did Josh Bell, who lined up on the ensuing at-bat.

Neither appearance meant much in Monday’s 7-3 loss to the New York Mets, but they could mean a whole lot more by Tuesday’s 6 p.m. trade deadline. Soto knew it, too — during a pitching change later in the inning, he angled his helmet toward the fans before heading into the dugout.

“I control what I can control,” Soto said. “Just go out there and play hard for those fans over there. Because like [the fans] said, they love me. So I will love them back.

Back in the fourth, Soto hit his 21st homer of the season – against former teammate Max Scherzer. He took his time getting around the bases and touching home plate. He walked towards the dugout as the fans behind stood and clapped a little longer to savor the moment.

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Scherzer surely understood Soto’s situation all too well: He spent more than six years with Washington before being traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers with Trea Turner at last year’s deadline, a decision 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 at this time of year. Nine more innings passed Monday night, and Soto and Bell were still with Nationals. But a lot could change in the next few 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 Mets, first in the National League East.

Soto and Bell got to Scherzer in the first inning – with help from poor defense. Soto worked a full count, two outs, and then Bell doubled down the right field line. Initially, it looked like it would put the runners in second and third, but right fielder Starling Marte kicked the ball to second – where no teammate was present. Soto rushed home and Bell advanced to third — there was no Met covering that base either — as Washington took the lead.

Soto would face Scherzer twice more, homering then walking into the fifth. In each at-bat, he did his signature shuffle and stared Scherzer down.

“[Scherzer] don’t like it,” Soto said with a smile. “He lowers his face. …He doesn’t want to look at me. And I understand it because it does its job. And he gives 100%, regardless of the quality of our relationship.

Soto flashed his arm as he kicked out Tomás Nido at home plate to end a second inning that could have been worse for the struggling starter Patrick Corbin. Despite Soto’s contributions, New York still led 3-1.

Washington finished with just six hits. After Soto’s home run in the fourth, Luis García brought home a home run single from Yadiel Hernandez to make it 4-3. Bell, a pending free agent, went 1-for-4, but Soto’s last line suited if it was his last game as a National: 1-for-1 with three walks, two runs and that outburst of 421 feet.

“Against a guy like Max, he had some great shots,” manager Dave Martinez said. “Kept the ball in the area, foul on good pitches, had a ball to kick and hit it wide.

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

“It’s always weird,” he said before the game. “When you see it, you kind of remember it in your head. But then I say, ‘Okay, we have to go out there and try to beat this guy. Let’s see how to do that.’ ”

How did Corbin get away with it? He threw 90 pitches and allowed four runs in 4⅓ innings. He was coming off his worst outing of the season — he missed the first inning against the Dodgers on Wednesday — but he was able to pull the team in order to start Monday’s game.

But his next two innings were much like what Nationals fans have grown accustomed to over the past two 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 ball past Corbin on the next inning that just went over the wall to left center for his 27th homer. It took Corbin 24 pitches to come out of a scoreless fourth, and after pulling out Francisco Lindor for the first on the fifth, his night was complete. His ERA rose slightly to 6.57 and his record dropped to 4-15.

Lindor’s three-run homer against Steve Cishek in the sixth put the game aside.

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