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As Juan Soto trade rumors swirl, Cardinals handle Nationals

The sequence Friday night should go straight into the reel of plays to define 2022 for the Washington Nationals. With the team already trailing by four runs in the sixth, Aníbal Sánchez induced a soft foul pop between the third base line and the St. Louis Cardinals’ dugout. He ran after it. Catcher Keibert Ruiz and third baseman Ehire Adrianza did, too.

Ruiz, though, called off his teammates before overrunning the ball. He twisted his body, a last-ditch attempt for the third out, but it nicked his glove and fell to the grass. And a pitch later, right on cue, Lars Nootbaar smacked a solo home run that chased Sánchez from the game. The Nationals eventually lost, 6-2, with St. Louis pulling away on back-to-back homers by Nolan Gorman and Nootbaar in that inning.

Sánchez yielded six runs on six hits and threw 108 pitches in his third start of the year. He was replaced by Jordan Weems, who was sharp while recording four outs — and who was then followed by Victor Arano and Hunter Harvey, who struck out the side on 12 pitches. Washington (34-67) managed only a pair of sacrifice flies against starter Miles Mikolas.

“Obviously our slug isn’t where it could be this year,” said first baseman Josh Bell, who finished with two singles and one of the sac flies. “We had eight hits, they had six, and we needed a timely hit, and we didn’t quite get it tonight. I wouldn’t say it’s frustrating just because I wouldn’t try to do more. I feel like our team’s playing pretty well on the offensive side of the ball. I just think when guys like Mikolas make a mistake, you have to capitalize on it, and we just didn’t do that.”

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The result notwithstanding, it was hard to ignore what really connects these teams at this point of the calendar. That would be Juan Soto and Tuesday’s trade deadline.

The Cardinals (53-47) have been an industry favorite to land Soto, should he get dealt, because of their strong farm system. Third baseman Jordan Walker, shortstop Masyn Winn and right-handed pitchers Gordon Graceffo and Tink Hence, all prospects, have been rumored as part of a package. So have outfielder Dylan Carlson and infielder Gorman, both of whom started for St. Louis in the series opener.

Carlson, 23, played center, batted first and knocked in the Cardinals’ first run with a groundout to first. Gorman, 22, played second, hit sixth and hammered a two-run, second-deck homer off Sánchez earlier in the sixth. Soto ripped a single and made a leaping catch against the side wall in the fifth. And a few levels above the field, four key members of the Cardinals’ front office took in the game.

The group included John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations, and Mike Girsch, general manager. Their last-minute scouting should have no bearing on how aggressively they pursue Soto. The evaluation — pretty clear-cut in this case — extends well beyond one weekend or Soto’s recent slump after a hot stretch to finish the first half. Plus, it makes sense for the Cardinals’ brain trust to be around the team and nearby if Nationals GM Mike Rizzo wants to meet in person.

That they were at Nationals Park and at this time of year and as the entire baseball world considers St. Louis a possible destination for Soto was fitting. Uncertainty with Soto has trailed the Nationals like a screaming shadow since the all-star break. The beginning of this series was no respite.

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What’s the latest with reliever Sean Doolittle? Doolittle, 35, had an internal brace procedure for his left elbow Tuesday. The surgery was performed by Jeffrey Dugas at James Andrews’s orthopedic center in Birmingham, Ala. Doolittle, a free agent this winter, will be in a soft cast and have to wear a brace for about six weeks. His plan is to return for spring training in February, whether that’s with the Nationals or another club. And while all went well with the procedure, according to Doolittle, he was surprised Dugas was able to operate around his many tattoos and keep them intact.

How was Albert Pujols received in his final trip to Nationals Park? Before his first at-bat in the second inning, Pujols was given a standing ovation. That included Nationals fans and a good bit of Cardinals supporters. Pujols, 42 and retiring after this season, stepped out of the batter’s box and tipped his helmet. Then Sánchez, 38, got Pujols to ground out on a well-placed cutter.

The matchup had a combined age of 80. Washington’s starting outfield of Soto, Victor Robles and Yadiel Hernandez had a combined age of 82. Before the game, the Nationals had players and coaches sign photos for Pujols and catcher Yadier Molina, who is injured and also in his final season.

“That guy is a legend, future Hall of Famer, and I don’t blame anybody for [supporting him],” Sánchez said of Pujols. “He’s been in this game for many, many years. And for me, too, to see that guy at that age and still with that attitude to come in every day to play hard, that’s something that you have to be grateful for.”

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