SAN DIEGO -- Juan Soto's first at-bat on the first day of October came with the Padres fighting for their playoff lives. They'd lost three straight and trailed the White Sox by a run, with Chicago's American League Cy Young hopeful, Dylan Cease, on the mound.
The night before, Soto was equal parts defiant and confident in the face of his team’s struggles. He was asked if the Padres were pressing, and he practically laughed off the question.
"What [pressing]?" Soto asked, rhetorically. "It’s no pressure at all."
Then he strode to the plate the following day, got a fastball from Cease at the top of the zone, and demolished it to straightaway center field.
From there, the rest was fairly straightforward. The Padres won that game. The Brewers lost the next two. The Padres clinched a playoff spot. And now, Soto gets to do what the Padres brought him here to do: mash in October.
“It’s the big stage,” Soto said. “Everybody wants the big stage. I’m a guy that: I want to be there. I want to have the bat in the big moments. If I fail or if I don’t, I want to be the guy up there and just enjoy that moment.”
Really, that's what the Padres' Trade Deadline overhaul was about. By Aug. 2, it was already clear they weren't catching the Dodgers in the NL West. But this was a team that felt it would nab a Wild Card spot and make a push once October arrived.
Soto, of course, already boasts quite an October track record, even at 23 years old. In 2019, he helped lead the Nationals to the franchise's first World Series on the strength of one of the most remarkable individual postseasons in recent memory.
Over the weekend, Soto was asked, what, specifically, he liked about playing in October, and his eyes lit up.
"It's more fun," Soto said. "... All the emotions, all the adrenaline -- it just goes to the highest point."
It hasn't exactly been the smoothest start for Soto in San Diego -- at least, judging by his ridiculously high standards. He has reached base at a .388 clip as a Padre and was worth 1.9 bWAR over his first 50 games.
But that's the thing about Soto. Those numbers are good -- and yet, the Padres brought him here to be better than that. They traded a significant portion of their farm system to land one of the best players of his generation. And so far, Soto hasn't been that.
Again, beside the point. This wasn't an acquisition for August. It was an acquisition for October. Soto has begun to heat up lately, posting a slash line of .309/.424/.545 since Sept. 18. If he authors anything close to his October performance in 2019, those August numbers will be forgotten awfully quickly.
“We just want to get hot in this spot,” Soto said. “It’s just like that. Whoever gets hot in this spot, in this moment, is the team that’s going to go all the way.”
Said general manager A.J. Preller, amid the stench of stale beer and champagne during Sunday evening’s clinch celebrations: "We like our team. We like our guys. And I think Juan's postseason experience is going to be big."
Those trades have paid varying degrees of dividends. Bell has struggled. Drury has flourished since returning from a concussion. Hader has seen mixed results -- dreadful early, dominant lately.
But none of the four truly hit the ground running. And the Padres are OK with that. The acclimation period is over, and Game 1 of the National League Wild Card Series comes Friday night at Citi Field against the Mets.
"To expect these guys to just come in at that particular time -- it was a later Trade Deadline this year -- and to just hit the ground running, it's not that easy," said manager Bob Melvin. "Now we're past the season. We have a really good group of guys that I think have finally settled in here. I believe our best work is yet to come."