Juan Soto has perfectly awkward possible final home game at Nationals Park | Opinion

WASHINGTON — With one more hip pivot, one more activation of his vicious swing, Juan Soto turned on a 95 mph offering from Max Scherzer and pummeled the baseball over the left center field wall at Nationals Park on Monday night, thrilling a crowd increasingly finding itself in the minority at home.

And it allowed the mind to wander a bit.

Three years ago, the novelty was Bryce Harper, Philadelphia Phillie, facing Max Scherzer, Washington National, on opening night, one franchise player’s unspeakable departure squaring off against the current fan favorite.

Six months after that, the Nationals won a World Series and enjoyed no shortage of schadenfreude as Harper and his $330 million contract stayed home.

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Then came a pandemic, one ace facing career-threatening injuries and the other nightly poundings each time he took the ball. A thin minor league system was grimly exposed. A white flag was waved with a trade of Scherzer and Trea Turner.

And suddenly, it’s one night before Major League Baseball’s trade deadline, Scherzer is toeing the mound as a New York Met and Soto, unfathomably, might be playing his final game as a National. While some in the crowd try to meet the moment and greet his at-bat with fanfare, the home team’s 35-68 record is little match for a road team that comes in 64-37 and seemingly with half of Flushing in the house.

So when Soto, still just 23 but all but gifted a ticket out of town, spanked Scherzer’s pitch deep into the night, it allowed just a split second of solace for almost everyone involved.

“Come 6:02 Thursday,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said beforehand, “I’ll be relieved regardless of what happens.”

Welcome to Major League Baseball’s trade deadline.

It’s turned into an industry all its own, and almost certainly the most popular feature within baseball’s 12-month calendar. Yet the frenzy leading up to the trade deadline is a far different animal for those within it.

A flurry of trades Monday resolved much of the outstanding business — pitcher Frankie Montas is a New York Yankee, inspiring Orioles hero Trey Mancini will try to topple him as a Houston Astro, a bunch of relievers switched hands — but the main event is still on for Tuesday evening’s 6 p.m. ET deadline.

Soto is on the trading block and while he still may not move until this winter, the chances of it occurring now — and granting the acquiring team three shots at a pennant with the generational hitter — marginally improved.

In short, all the other big names are off the board. If you didn’t get Montas, or top prize Luis Castillo (Mariners), or All-Star reliever Josh Hader (Padres), you probably retain most of your prospect capital. Heck, even if you did get one of those guys, you may not be out of it, as the Padres and entertaining GM A.J. Preller constantly prove.

It makes for great theater and Tuesday should be no different, with the generally established finalists for Soto — the Dodgers, Cardinals and Padres — ready to lay best-and-finals off the table.

Of course, all the hullaballoo makes it easy to forget about the inhabitants within the fishbowl.

This time, it is Soto, whose pending departure is a reminder that there’s no backside of a young star’s tenure that the Nationals can’t turn into a death march. First, it was Harper, a top overall pick at 17, a big leaguer at 19, an MVP by 22, almost all of it by design. In a simpler world, the Scott Boras client might have been presumed to leave, both sides recognize as such and depart with fond memories.

Instead, the final year and aftermath of the Harper era turned into a weird haze of heavily-deferred contract offers, a sullen march to free agency amid a collusion-adjacent market and a phony sense of “betrayal” from fans when Harper’s best offer came up the road, from the Phillies.

Juan Soto takes the field during the Nationals' game against the Mets on Monday night.
Juan Soto takes the field during the Nationals' game against the Mets on Monday night.

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For Soto, it was so different — and figured to end that way, too.

His rookie season was a circumstance-driven miracle, shot like a cannon from low Class A Hagerstown to D.C., a flurry of outfield injuries forcing him to the bigs. What followed has been five of the most dominant seasons by a left-handed batter anyone younger than 25 can probably remember. His lifetime .426 on-base percentage and plate approach evokes Ted Williams comparisons; his ice cold home runs in Games 1 and 6 of the 2019 World Series established himself, viscerally, as one of the baddest dudes in the sport.

But after that championship season, the foundation around him crumbled. Patrick Corbin, signed to a flags-fly-forever $140 million deal before 2019, has been a pinata since, appropriately failing to complete five innings in Monday’s 7-3 loss. Stephen Strasburg, re-upped for $245 million after his World Series MVP award, has started eight games since and is trying to recover from thoracic outlet syndrome, his future very much in doubt.

Meanwhile, a farm system’s failings that had been camouflaged by top draft picks of yore and appropriately aggressive free agent moves became badly exposed. Soto’s service time odometer ticked. Two-plus years left.

The foolhardy revelation of a contract offer that looked good ($440 million!) but in fact was of lowball variety ($29 million per, compared to the $35 million Strasburg will receive to not pitch) was the accelerant for the industry’s current level of hysteria. Soto won’t sign it. The Nationals probably won’t sweeten it, or perhaps, realize the rebuild is a bigger dig than imagined, and shovel-ready contention isn’t likely by the time Soto can walk.

So a trade it will be, either sometime Tuesday or over the winter, bringing us to Monday’s drama. Soto has done nothing to dent his image as perhaps the game’s most unflappable performer: He won last month’s Home Run Derby just hours after answering an hour's worth of inquiries from national media when details of his contract offer were raw.

His July slash line, particularly given the circumstances, was absurd: .315/.495/.616 with six homers, Bondsian in his ability to take his walks but park balls that dared challenge him over the fence. Monday was no different: He drew a walk from Scherzer, lit him up for the home run and then drew two more walks.

Soto also stole a base, threw out a runner at home, teased a non-participating Scherzer with his shuffle — "He don't wanna look at me," says Soto, "and I understand it" — and looked more joyful than he had in days.

He acknowledges true relief may not come until he wakes up Wednesday morning, wherever that may be, and that he couldn't help but feed off the ovations and chants from fans Monday.

"That shows you I’m controlling what I can control," Soto said of his Monday performance, though he could have been discussing the last month. "Just going out there, keep playing hard for those fans out there. Like they were saying, they love me.

"So I’m going to give them love back."

And then it was quite different: As Soto ambled to first after his eighth inning walk, the crowd slowly rose to its feet and delivered a scattered standing ovation, a maybe-goodbye that was perfectly awkward for the moment we occupy.

How did it get to this, that an otherwise perfectly healthy player-team relationship quickly devolved into drama?

On Tuesday, the last act may play out on a day that routinely thrills fans even as it emotionally punishes the protagonists.

"I feel like this is 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 that's tested his plate discipline and competitive patience.

"I’ve learned about myself, the team, the business."

Now, less than 24 hours before the ultimate business lesson may be delivered.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Juan Soto homers in what might be final home game with Nationals