Bell, Soto swat down team that swapped them

New Padres sluggers homer in victory over the Nationals

August 21st, 2022

SAN DIEGO -- The Padres have Juan Soto and Josh Bell in the middle of their lineup. The Nationals no longer do. On Saturday night, it was as simple as that.

In an ever-tightening Wild Card race, the struggling Padres desperately needed to beat the Nationals, and they desperately needed to ignite their offense somehow. 

Probably a good thing, then, that they traded for Soto and Bell earlier this month.

The two former Nationals each hit a solo home run, and the Padres held on for a much-needed 2-1 victory at Petco Park -- a win that moved them two games clear of the Brewers in the race for the final National League Wild Card spot. 

“We really needed this, really bad,” Soto said. “Just to get back on track and get the team going.”

Bell tied the game with a solo drive in the fifth inning. Soto untied it with a solo smash in the seventh.

And that was the entirety of the San Diego offense, on a night when baserunners were plenty but clutch hits were few. It has been a grind lately for the Padres with men in scoring position. 

When that happens, well, it’s always good to have a few guys who can leave the yard at any moment.

“One swing of the bat changes the game,” said Padres manager Bob Melvin. “Earlier in the season, that was a dynamic that was probably coming from a couple of guys. Now we have guys throughout the lineup that can do that.”

Bell’s home run brought a moment of catharsis for the hulking slugger. He’d posted All-Star caliber numbers prior to the trade, but was batting just .121 in his first 16 games with San Diego.

On Saturday, Bell arrived early for a bit of extra work. The emphasis? Bell didn’t feel he was getting his “A swing” off enough. Too often, he’d grown defensive in his approach at the plate. That needed to be fixed.

Sure enough, Bell got his “A swing” on a belt-high fastball from Josiah Gray. Bell demolished it 415 feet to right-center, his first home run as a Padre.

“It felt really good,” Bell said. “I put in a lot of work, coming in early today and getting in the cage, getting things righted. Hopefully, this is a step in the right direction.”

Saturday marked the sixth time already that Bell and Soto have faced their former team since the blockbuster trade. They both said they’ve enjoyed seeing their old teammates so quickly. But for Bell, well, something was missing.

“It's a lot more fun now that I've actually gotten a hit against them,” Bell quipped. “It got to a point where I could kind of feel myself pressing. Like, I know these guys, I know what they're coming with, I know their pitches. I should be able to get at least one of them. Happy that I was able to tonight.”

Soto followed two innings later with his second Padres home run, sending a Steve Cishek fastball 429 feet, off the center-field batter’s eye. San Diego led, and with Josh Hader temporarily out of the closer role, it was Luis García who got the ball for the ninth.

The hard-throwing right-hander got into a bit of trouble, putting two men aboard with one out. But first baseman Brandon Drury ended the game with a heads-up defensive play. Nats pinch-hitter Maikel Franco hit a soft liner toward first -- not high enough for the infield-fly rule. So Drury let the ball bounce, then fired to second for an out, and the Padres had another runner hung up for a game-ending double play.

But the defensive gem of the night went to starter Joe Musgrove, who was sharp over six innings of one-run ball. He made two excellent plays in the fifth, first a glove-flip to the plate on a squeeze to prevent a run. Then, the true highlight-reel play came one batter later.

Joey Meneses hit a one-hop comebacker toward Musgrove, who stuck out his barehand and snagged the ball out of mid-air. He coolly threw to first, ending the threat and setting the stage for Bell’s breakthrough moment. Musgrove, of course, knows exactly what Bell is capable of, having played alongside him in Pittsburgh.

“No one works harder than J.B.,” Musgrove said. “... Everyone knows the hitter he is and what he’s capable of doing. Whenever you get traded to a new team -- midseason especially -- there’s a need and a pressure you put on yourself to perform.

“I know he’s been feeling the weight of that a little bit. So it felt really good to see that.”