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.”

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.

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.

Read more on baseball:

July 23, 2020 at 10:58 PM EDT
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Nats lose rain-shortened opener, 4-1

By Scott Allen

After a two-hour rain delay, umpires called Thursday’s game, which was paused with one out and two runners on in the top of the sixth inning. The Yankees win, 4-1.

Max Scherzer struck out 11 in 5 ⅓ innings, but allowed four hits, including a two-run home run to Giancarlo Stanton in the first inning, and four walks. Yankees starter Gerrit Cole limited Washington to one hit — a solo home run by Adam Eaton in the first inning — and struck out five.

The Nationals and Yankees are off Friday before resuming their three-game series on Saturday night.

July 23, 2020 at 9:52 PM EDT
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Rain delay approaches one hour

By Scott Allen

Did you hear the Nationals added a waterfall to Nationals Park to commemorate their 2019 World Series title? They actually didn’t, but one formed during Thursday’s rain delay, which is approaching one hour.

The rain has mostly moved away from Nationals Park, but there’s no word yet on a potential restart time or how ballpark staff plans clear the shin-deep standing water in the home dugout. With five innings complete and the Yankees leading 4-1, if the game is called, they would be declared the winners.

July 23, 2020 at 9:21 PM EDT
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Rob Manfred talks MLB’s expanded postseason

By Scott Allen

Before the rain arrived, ESPN’s Matt Vasgersian and Alex Rodriguez interviewed MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred about baseball’s expanded postseason for 2020, which was announced Thursday.

“We think it’s an opportunity for baseball to have three great days filled with baseball right at the beginning of the postseason,” Manfred said from the Nationals Park press box, as lightning flashed in the distance. “We think the format is especially good given our short format this year. We think it’ll be great for fans and great for the players.”

The new playoff format will expand the postseason from 10 to 16 teams, with eight best-of-three series in the first round. Read more here.

July 23, 2020 at 8:57 PM EDT
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Rain delay at Nationals Park

By Scott Allen

The rain and lightning have arrived at Nationals Park. The game was paused with one out, runners on first and third and the Yankees leading 4-1 in the top of the sixth inning.

July 23, 2020 at 8:38 PM EDT
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Dave Martinez talks Juan Soto, Max Scherzer allows another run

By Scott Allen

During the top of the fifth inning, ESPN’s Matt Vasgersian and Alex Rodriguez interviewed Nationals Manager Dave Martinez about Juan Soto testing positive for coronavirus.

“I told him, ‘Hey, just hang in there,’” Martinez, who wore a face mask throughout the interview, said. “ … We all knew coming into this 2020 season that these things may happen.”

Rodriguez asked Martinez who’s he’s looking to step up as a leader in Soto’s absence.

“We still got Howie [Kendrick] here, you got [Kurt Suzuki], Max [Scherzer], [Stephen Strasburg],” he said. “These guys are really good leaders, man, and they come out every day and they compete every day. That’s all I can ask.”

A leadoff walk to Gio Urshela came back to bite Scherzer in the inning. Giancarlo Stanton’s two-out single to right field with the bases loaded gave the Yankees a 4-1 lead before Scherzer struck out Brett Gardner on his 86th pitch for his 10th strikeout of the game.

July 23, 2020 at 8:24 PM EDT
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For one Nationals fan, an Opening Day encounter to remember

By Scott Allen

Nationals fan Sophia Kaounas was running along the Georgetown waterfront Thursday morning when she saw someone decked out in red Nationals gear.

“So I get little closer, right?” Kaounas, who lives near Nationals Park, said Thursday afternoon. “And I realize — it’s Max Scherzer! And I couldn’t help myself. I said: ‘Hey, Max! Go, Nats!’ And he says, ‘Go, Nats!’ And then I just kept running.”

Scherzer, of course, started Thursday’s game. Kaounas, 28, planned to set up a hot dog bar and watch from home with her boyfriend.

“I really wish I could’ve given him a hug or a high-five,” Kaounas said. “But I withheld.”

July 23, 2020 at 8:16 PM EDT
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Rain closing in on Nationals Park

By Scott Allen

The Capital Weather Gang says the rain could arrive in the next half-hour. It’s worth noting that, under MLB’s new rules for 2020, games that do not go five complete innings because of weather issues can be suspended and restarted from the same point at a later date. Friday is an off day for both teams.

July 23, 2020 at 8:09 PM EDT
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Gerrit Cole settles in for the Yankees

By Scott Allen

Max Scherzer has six strikeouts through three innings, but allowed another run in the third on a double to left by Aaron Judge that scored speedy Tyler Wade from first base. The Yankees’ Gerrit Cole has only allowed one hit, a first inning solo home run to Adam Eaton, who flew out to the warning track in right field to end the third.

With clouds approaching and lightning spotted in the distance, New York takes a 3-1 lead into the fourth.

July 23, 2020 at 7:51 PM EDT
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ESPN goes remote for Opening Day broadcast

By Scott Allen

It’s a tradition unlike any other: Broadcasters complaining about the view from the Nationals Park press box, which is situated much higher above the field than the press boxes at most ballparks.

“I think we have a better view of the ballpark from here in the studio in Bristol, Connecticut,” ESPN play-by-play man Matt Vasgersian said in the bottom of the second inning, prompting laughter from analyst Alex Rodriguez.

Buster Olney is the only member of the ESPN on-air broadcast team at Nationals Park for the game.

Neither team scored in the second inning and Max Scherzer has struck out four straight since allowing a first-inning home run to Giancarlo Stanton.

July 23, 2020 at 7:35 PM EDT
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Adam Eaton launches Nats’ first home run of 2020

By Scott Allen

Adam Eaton got one back for the Nationals in the bottom half of the first inning, sending a Gerrit Cole 98 mph fastball onto one of the blue tarps covering the unneeded seats in right field.

With ESPN holding exclusive rights, MASN isn’t broadcasting Thursday’s game, but you could almost hear Nationals play-by-play man Bob Carpenter shouting his first home run call of the 2020 regular season.

July 23, 2020 at 7:26 PM EDT
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Yankees take early lead on Giancarlo Stanton homer

By Scott Allen

The 2020 season officially got underway with a 95 mph fastball from Max Scherzer that Aaron Hicks took for a ball off the outside corner. There was no one in the stands to give home plate umpire Angel Hernandez grief for the close, but correct, call, which will take some getting used to.

Three batters later, with two outs and Aaron Judge standing on second base, Giancarlo Stanton launched a fastball into the left-center field seats to give the Yankees a 2-0 lead. As ESPN’s Alex Rodriguez noted, it was Stanton’s 21st career home run at Nationals Park, the most of any visiting player.

July 23, 2020 at 7:06 PM EDT
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Players stand for national anthem before Anthony Fauci bounces first pitch

By Scott Allen

As a video from the Players Alliance, the group of current and former black players that formed after George Floyd was killed while in Minneapolis police custody in late May, played on the main scoreboard, players from both teams held a black ribbon that stretched from right field, behind home plate and down the left field line. Players knelt during the moment of silence that followed, then stood during the national anthem, which was prerecorded by D.C. Washington.

Anthony S. Fauci then took the field for the ceremonial first pitch. Donning a Nationals World Series champion face mask, Fauci stood in front of the mound, against Ryan Zimmerman’s advice, and bounced his pitch short and well wide of Sean Doolittle, who was crouched behind home plate.

July 23, 2020 at 6:56 PM EDT
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Nationals raise World Series champions flag, pennant

By Scott Allen

So nobody watching from home this season forgets what the Nationals accomplished last October, the team installed a 14-foot tall “2019 World Series Champions” sign on the side of the Budweiser Brew House in center field during the offseason.

Before Thursday’s game, with the Yankees and Nationals lined up on the third- and first-base lines, respectively, the Nationals raised a World Series champions flag in center field plaza and a 2019 World Series pennant above the main scoreboard.

July 23, 2020 at 6:50 PM EDT
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Nats, Yankees show support for Black Lives Matter

By Scott Allen

The letters “BLM” will be stenciled into the pitcher’s mound at Nationals Park on Thursday night and remain there throughout the Nationals’ season-opening series against the Yankees. The display is one example of the show of support for social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement that fans can expect to see from the league, teams and individual players this year.

“The Nationals, in conjunction with Major League Baseball, stand with the Black Lives Matter movement and will utilize the platform and national stage of Opening Day to express support for the fight against systemic racism and injustice,” the team said in a statement this week.

MLB, after discussions with the MLB Players Association and the Players Alliance, a large group of current and former African American players that formed after George Floyd was killed while in Minneapolis police custody in late May, is allowing players more freedom to express themselves this year.

“Black Lives Matter” T-shirts will be made available to players to wear during batting practice, along with “Black Lives Matter” and “United For Change” patches that players may attach to their jersey sleeves. Players will also be permitted to wear wristbands featuring an inverted MLB logo with a black silhouetted batter and cleats decorated with social justice messages and causes.

Yankees Manager Aaron Boone wore a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt during his pregame news conference and said his team would have its “own demonstration” on Thursday. After seven players and San Francisco Giants Manager Gabe Kapler knelt as the national anthem played before an exhibition game on Monday, Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle said he would “absolutely” kneel with teammates if they chose to do so, “so that they wouldn’t have to face it alone.”