None of that happened at Nationals Park on Tuesday, the first day of the post-Soto era.
When the Nationals took the field for their 5-1 win over the New York Mets, Josh Palacios — called up from Class AAA earlier in the day — slowly jogged to right field. He started to toss a warmup throw to the bullpen catcher, but before he could, he had to make sure he shouldn’t throw to the center fielder instead.
Palacios, donning No. 68, looked out of place. Right field used to be reserved for No. 22.
But Soto and first baseman Josh Bell were sent to the San Diego Padres in a blockbuster trade Tuesday, and the Nationals proceeded with business as usual — before a game that ended in a more uplifting fashion than most fans could have expected. Washington hit three home runs; back-to-back blasts by Luis García, a go-ahead two-run shot, and Yadiel Hernandez in the sixth inning put the Nationals ahead 4-1. Joey Meneses, a 30-year-old making his major league debut, added a solo shot in the seventh.
“I was relieved — I really was,” Manager Dave Martinez said of the trade deadline passing. “I felt a breath of fresh air. It’s about regrouping and saying: ‘All right, this is what we need to do moving forward. We’re going to go out there, we’re going to compete, and we’re going to play hard and do some different things.’ I was proud of the boys going out there and doing what they did.”
Soto played his final game as a National on Monday. A day later, he was the prized commodity in a trade that saw the Nationals acquire five high-upside players and a veteran bat in Luke Voit. Three years ago, Soto’s Nationals won the World Series. Three trade deadlines later, their roster is almost unrecognizable.
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Washington sat 34 games under .500 at the deadline — 31 games back of the first-place Mets (65-38), who Tuesday added to what they hope is a championship roster. The Nationals (36-69) made different kinds of moves: They called up players from Class AAA Rochester to fill the gaps.
“You build relationships with those guys and they move on,” Martinez said before the game. “I got to get ready to build more relationships with the new guys. So that, in itself, is a challenge. But I’m looking forward to it.”
The Nationals added Meneses and Palacios from Rochester. Shortstop C.J. Abrams, one of the key pieces of the Soto trade, was optioned there. To make room on the 40-man roster, the Nationals transferred pitcher Evan Lee to the 60-day injured list and designated pitcher Josh Rogers for assignment.
Maybe Meneses and Palacios will boost the Nationals’ fortunes. Maybe they won’t. But Tuesday night, Meneses replaced Bell at first base and batted sixth. Palacios started in right and hit seventh in his 14th big league career game.
Their first matchup of the season? Jacob deGrom, who was making his first start of the year for the Mets. Who was facing him for the Nationals? Cory Abbott, who was making his second major league start.
Abbott threw the first pitch as “Let’s go Mets!” chants filled the stadium. When deGrom took the mound, he received cheers so loud that the Nationals seemed like the visitors. Meneses stepped to the plate in the second inning as fans in the 300 level chanted, “Let’s go new guy!” He struck out in his first at-bat. So did Palacios, who went 0 for 3.
DeGrom faced the minimum over the first three innings, allowing a second-inning single to Keibert Ruiz before he was thrown out trying to stretch it into a double. The Nationals took a 1-0 lead in the fourth when García doubled to bring home Victor Robles. Abbott went step for step with deGrom; each lasted five innings, but Abbott didn’t allow a run.
Victor Arano replaced Abbott and immediately allowed a solo homer to Francisco Lindor that leveled the score before the Nationals responded against the New York bullpen. By Meneses’s last at-bat, fans in the upper levels were chanting, “Joey! Joey!”
“I didn’t really think about how I was going to feel hitting my first home run,” Meneses said. “But as I was rounding the bases, I kept looking around and seeing the stands and the fans cheering. It was very emotional — great feeling.”
The Nationals finished with eight hits, but a lineup without Bell and Soto felt abnormal. The hype video that plays before first pitch didn’t include Bell’s and Soto’s home run swings, which were highlighted in the past.
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Before the game, the back of the clubhouse had some of Soto’s uniforms and cleats stuffed in a box. Soto’s jersey was gone, but Bell’s still hung at his locker. When the clubhouse opened, Robles jokingly yelled, “They’re already gone, guys!” to reporters looking for the former Nationals.
By the end of the night, everything was gone. All that was left in Soto’s locker were a few dozen hangers and a pack of water bottles. A mini fridge sat in Bell’s.
But despite the seismic change the afternoon brought, Tuesday night’s matchup was just another game in early August.
“Just like anything else,” García said, “we come here every day trying to win every game possible with the same positive energy.”