The first game of baseball’s return didn’t end with a walk-off hit, a high-pressure strikeout or any players on the field at Nationals Park. That would have been far too off-brand for 2020.

Instead, on a rain-soaked Thursday in the District, the final pitch was thrown by Max Scherzer with one out in the sixth. The last sequence was the ace and his teammates jogging for cover beneath a violent midsummer storm. The New York Yankees led at that point, 4-1, and that held as the final result.

It took months of labor negotiations and continued health scares to begin a 60-game season during the novel coronavirus pandemic. So of course, on a night that was supposed to finally feature the sport, only the actual game was washed away. The action lasted 1 hour 43 minutes. The rain delay was 15 minutes longer.

“It turned out long. Let’s just say that,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said of the whole experience. “From this morning until now and then getting the game cut off in five innings, we just have to put this one behind us.”

“It was an emotional day,” closer Sean Doolittle added. “A very, very emotional day.”

It started with a reminder of how fragile this restart plan is. It reached Martinez in the morning, when he received a call from the Nationals’ medical staff. They told him left fielder Juan Soto had tested positive for the coronavirus and would soon be placed on the covid-19 injured list. The club immediately set up instant-result tests throughout the day, according to two people with knowledge of the situation, to determine whether the result was a false positive.

Soto, 21, spit saliva into a cup. He had a swab stuck way up his nose. Three results came back negative, according to three people with knowledge of them, but they weren’t lab confirmed. The team conducted antigen tests, not the PCR tests administered by baseball, which have a higher rate of false positives, according to a person with knowledge of the Nationals’ process with Soto. After quarantining for 14 days this month because he possibly came into contact with the virus on a flight from the Dominican Republic, Soto now will need two lab-confirmed negatives before returning.

So the Nationals left one of their best players off the Opening Day roster. They plugged Andrew Stevenson into left field. And soon the show went on.

“You know, for me, it's baseball,” Martinez said Thursday afternoon when asked if he had spoken with the Yankees about whether the game should be played. “We all know what we got ourselves into.”

Washington Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo and Manager Dave Martinez addressed Juan Soto positive coronavirus test during a July 23 news conference. (Washington Nationals)

At 6:35 p.m., the big screen showed a video acknowledging front-line health-care workers. At 6:45, a World Series flag was raised beyond center field while the Nationals lightly clapped. And at 6:55, there was a quiet moment for the Black Lives Matter movement; both teams held the same strand of black cloth, then coaches and players from each team knelt into the grass. Then they all stood for a recorded version of the national anthem.

The 10-minute intervals showed how baseball is clashing with the outside world: The pandemic rages on across the country. The Nationals squeezed in an awkward title celebration. MLB plans to raise awareness for racial injustice throughout its opening weekend. That’s the context of a risky return, which officially began when Scherzer threw a first-pitch ball to Aaron Hicks.

The pitching matchup — Scherzer vs. Gerrit Cole — was the same as in Game 1 of the World Series in October. Cole was with the Houston Astros then, and he signed a nine-year, $324 million deal with the Yankees this past offseason. Scherzer, who turns 36 next week, made his first appearance since gutting out five innings in the Nationals’ championship-clinching win.

Scherzer walked out to his usual music, “Still D.R.E.” by Dr. Dre, even if just a handful could hear it. There were two half-filled dugouts, a press box of socially distanced reporters, staff roaming the stadium and a smattering of fans watching from nearby rooftops. But that was it. There was the hum of fake crowd noise when Scherzer discarded Hicks to begin his outing. There were faint cheers from the New York dugout when Aaron Judge ripped a one-out single. Then Giancarlo Stanton took a very quiet jog around the bases.

His two-run homer, off a middle-in fastball, traveled 459 feet before landing in the empty seats beyond left-center. It was the longest shot Scherzer has allowed since MLB Statcast started tracking distances in 2015. The Nationals got a run back in the bottom half, once Adam Eaton ripped a solo blast off Cole. But Scherzer couldn’t solve Stanton or Judge.

“Unfortunately my fastball location was kind of a cross fire,” Scherzer said. “I tried to throw arm side, was throwing glove side. Glove side, arm side. So I didn’t pitch quite as efficiently, and it created some mistakes.”

Judge restored a two-run lead in the third by doubling in Tyler Wade. Stanton made it 4-1 by singling in Gio Urshela in the fifth. Scherzer navigated out of the trouble, stranding the bases loaded with his 10th strikeout, and came back out for the sixth. Cole, meanwhile, had set down 10 consecutive batters between the second and fifth to silence the Nationals.

Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Washington National’s Opening Day game on July 23. (Washington Nationals)

Yet the game wouldn’t last much longer. Scherzer worked through the middle of New York’s order while lightning lit up the sky. Thunder rolled as Urshela singled, putting runners on first and third, and the rain quickly thickened. A weather delay began at 8:52 p.m. Scherzer was finished at 99 pitches, Cole squeezed in 75, and the game was canceled after 118 minutes.

By that point, the stadium was drenched. Baseball never stood a chance.

“It’s hard to describe,” Doolittle said at night’s end. “That’s 2020 in a nutshell.”

Find live updates and highlights from Opening Day at Nationals Park below.

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