Juan Soto booed in return to San Diego. He regrets that he didn't play better for Padres.

SAN DIEGO — Padres fans didn’t even hesitate, booing Juan Soto the moment his name was announced in the pre-game starting lineups Friday night. The boos got louder with every step he took towards home plate, and were thunderous when he stepped into the batter’s box.

Soto hardly was solely responsible for the Padres’ embarrassing 2023 season that saw them fail to make the postseason. He wasn’t the one who vowed the Padres would win their first World Series after joining the team two years ago. Yet, he epitomized the fans’ frustration over their grossly underachieving 82-80 season.

Now that Soto is absolutely thriving in a New York Yankees’ uniform, putting up the kind of the numbers the Padres envisioned, the sellout crowd at Petco Park voiced their anger and frustration, loud and clear.

“It’s kind of tough for me because (the fans) were there every day for me,’’ Soto said before the game. “I know I tried my best. I played hard every game. But I didn’t play at my best, you know?

“And that’s one of the things I was kind of sad about, because I couldn’t show them how great I can be.’’

Soto was supposed to be the slugger that finally ended the Padres’ World Series drought, with expectations reaching surreal heights. Instead, the streak is 55 years and counting with no end in sight.

“For me, I think it’s just baseball,’’ Soto said, when asked to explain what happened. “At the end of the day, even if you have the best team on paper, you’ve got to go out and try to win games. But stuff happens.

“We didn’t have the luck on our side in 2023. We have some games when there was nothing we can do. But it is what it is. Now, it’s in the past.

“I just learn from it. Definitely, I learned a lot of things last year that is going to help me this year, and it’s going to help the group I’m around. I just take it and keep moving forward.’’

Juan Soto flips his bat after hitting a home run in the third inning against the Padres.
Juan Soto flips his bat after hitting a home run in the third inning against the Padres.

Soto, who was traded to the Padres from the Washington Nationals on Aug. 2, 2022, was never the difference-maker the Padres envisioned. They wanted to try one last year with Soto, but with financial woes that included a loan to help make payroll last fall, the Padres traded him to the Yankees on Dec. 6.

In New York, Soto has been the player the Padres thought they were getting to lead them to the promised land when they traded four prized prospects to Washington.

Soto, 25, entered Friday as the favorite to win the American League MVP award, hitting .312 with 13 homers and 41 RBI, with a .409 on-base percentage, .563 slugging percentage and .972 OPS. He has been one of the game’s most dangerous hitters with runners in scoring position, hitting .357 with a .619 slugging percentage, with three homers and 28 RBI. He added to his totals Friday night, launching a two-run home run in the third inning.

The Padres were waiting for the same production during his San Diego stint, but he hit .265 with a .893 OPS, with 41 homers and 125 RBI. Certainly good numbers, but short of expectations.

So the Padres shipped him to New York, and while players can wilt under the New York spotlight, Soto has thrived.

“He’s been pretty awesome,’’ Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “What I’ve enjoyed is what I believe is a really good teammate and a guy that’s been a really good person in our room.

“He’s about winning and all of those intangible things, the behind-the-scenes things, that’s what’s gotten me the most excited.’’

Several Padres players and coaches don’t share the same sentiments, with some questioning why Soto's intensity and skills have accelerated since joining the Yankees. But everyone in the Padres’ clubhouse kept their public opinions positive.

“He’s been having a hell of a season,’’ Padres third baseman Manny Machado said. “So, I’m excited to see him again and see what he’s been doing first-hand. He was a big part of our last two seasons, here.’’

The Padres tried several times to sign Soto to a contract extension during his stay, but nothing ever came close to materializing before he was traded.

“Man, this is a great city, it’s a great fan base, a great team,’’ Soto said. "But at the end of the day, we just couldn’t get it done, and keep moving forward.’’

The Yankees will also try to sign him to an extension before he’s a free agent, Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner said last week. Yet, with free agency so close, there’s little chance he’ll consider signing before the Yankees and Mets engage in a potential bidding war that could top $500 million.

“I love it here, it’s a great city, it’s an unbelievable group in there,’’ Soto said. “I’m excited. I’m more than happy where I am right now.

“It’s just a great vibe we have in there.’’

It was the same mantra Soto expressed with the Padres, saying all the right things — how much he loved San Diego and that he didn’t want to be traded. Yet, the Padres knew they had no choice but to trade him if they wanted to slash their payroll and be competitive.

“I know that’s what he wanted, he expressed that publicly and privately that he wanted to be here,’’ Machado said. “The lines just never aligned.’’

Said Padres right fielder Fernando Tatis Jr., one of Soto’s closest friends on the team: “Now that we’re facing each other, we're not friends anymore. No, I love Juan. He’s a great guy. He’s a great baseball player. …

“I’m definitely not surprised what he’s doing. I knew he’d rise to the occasion. He’s that type of player.’’

Certainly, Soto should become the highest-paid free agent not named Shohei Ohtani this winter. The Mets badly crave him, knowing he can be their version of Aaron Judge. The Yankees would love to keep him, seeing the impact he has made on this year’s 35-17 team. Who knows if someone else will surprise and jump into the bidding, knowing the paycheck will start at $500 million after he rejected a 15-year, $440 million offer in 2022 from the Nationals?

“We’re going to be open to everybody,’’ Soto says, “everybody. We ain’t closing any doors. Whoever wants to talk about deals and stuff, I’m open to deal with it.

“But that’s going to be in the future.

“Right now, I’m a Yankee.’’

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Yankees' Juan Soto booed in return to San Diego. He seems to get it.