And they did, 6-5, because of Soto’s first career walk-off hit, a liner that skipped to the wall as Victor Robles charged home. Soto chucked his helmet into the outfield grass and leaped into Trea Turner’s arms. A small crowd managed a big roar, another, then chants of “Let’s go, So-to!” as the 22-year-old star waved for more.
That Opening Day happened at all — in front of 4,801 fans, on April 6 instead of April 1 — was a victory in itself. Soto made sure it would also count in the National League East race.
“It feels amazing,” said Soto, who slapped Will Smith’s 3-0 fastball to win the game. “I can’t even believe ... the late innings, with the noise and the crowd, it made my heart go a little bit quicker.”
“Just joy,” Turner said of the celebration behind second base. “Being back is fun. Playing is fun. Winning is fun.”
In normal times, as in most other years, this is the day when fans meet the players signed and traded for in the offseason. That would have meant first glimpses of first baseman Josh Bell, left fielder Kyle Schwarber, closer Brad Hand, starter Jon Lester and catcher Alex Avila. Josh Harrison, too, if you count the infielder who returned after 33 games in Washington last summer. But that whole group remains sidelined by coronavirus protocols. Add starter Patrick Corbin, catcher Yan Gomes and utility man Jordy Mercer to that list.
The Nationals have 11 players who tested positive for the coronavirus or are in quarantine because they were close contacts of an infected teammate. It turned their roster into a shell of what they envisioned when they left spring training last week. But there was still a game, still fans with tickets, still a chance to play after a long and unexpected break. The Nationals woke up Tuesday and leaned on that.
Then Ronald Acuña Jr. smacked Max Scherzer’s first-pitch fastball for a homer. Then, two batters later, Freddie Freeman pulled a 3-1 curveball for a solo shot to the second deck in right. When Dansby Swanson went deep in the second — pounding a 2-2 fastball that was straight down the middle — the Braves had three homers in six batters and Washington trailed 3-0.
“Weird, frustrating start,” said Scherzer, who pushed to 91 pitches in six innings, leaning on his change-up and slider to steady his outing. “But we won the game. That’s what matters most.”
Scherzer, to his credit, had a weird gap between his last spring training appearance (a “B game” March 27) and facing the Braves (in a start that was pushed back five days by the team’s outbreak). He threw to a catcher, Jonathan Lucroy, who signed Saturday night, rushed to Washington and couldn’t join the team until he passed a coronavirus test. He had an excuse for being a tick behind.
The Nationals, though, needed him to be more like Max Scherzer. It seemed like their best shot to win with an order down four expected starters and a bullpen missing its closer and another high-leverage arm. But another option emerged in the early innings: They could bully Braves starter Drew Smyly as Scherzer settled in.
That started when Hernán Pérez — yes, Hernán Pérez — collected the Nationals’ first hit of the season in the second inning. Andrew Stevenson, Schwarber’s replacement, then reached on a searing grounder before Lucroy had his first plate appearance since Sept. 28, 2019. So of course he doubled down the left field line to plate two runs.
“I feel like a mercenary, kind of,” said Lucroy, who could very well be cut loose when Gomes and Avila return. “It’s funny.”
In the top of the third, Acuña stretched the Braves’ lead with his second solo homer. In the bottom half, Turner erased it with a two-run blast into the visitors’ bullpen. The shortstop rocked Smyly’s middle-in fastball to tie the score. He gave Scherzer a reset button, and the ace flipped his outing on its head. The first 10 batters he faced went 4 for 10 with four homers. The final 13 went 1 for 13 with six strikeouts.
Kyle Finnegan relieved him and loaded the bases with two singles (by Austin Riley and Cristian Pache) and a walk (by pinch hitter Pablo Sandoval) before Acuña tapped an RBI groundout over the mound in the seventh. But the Nationals pushed back in the eighth when Stevenson re-knotted the score with an infield single. A bullpen mix of Wander Suero, Kyle McGowin and Daniel Hudson kept the Nationals floating with scoreless appearances. They set Soto up to play hero in the ninth.
“I’ve always got it in my mind that, good hitters, they hit from the seventh inning [on],” Soto said. “So I just walk in in those innings and try to get my job done.”
Last summer, Soto missed Opening Day because he tested positive for the coronavirus. He was convinced it was a false result yet had to wait in his apartment — standing in front of the TV, swinging through air — as the season began without him. That added meaning to Tuesday’s ending. Here was the familiar drama of a baseball game, the crowd hanging on a rally that built with Robles’s single, with Turner getting hit by a pitch, with Smith falling behind Soto 3-0. Here was Soto, the Nationals’ engine, against a reliever who spat at him during a matchup in August 2020.
That meeting finished with Soto crushing a homer at Truist Park in Atlanta. This one was capped by a single that felt much better. Smith tried to beat Soto with a low fastball that hummed beneath his usual velocity. Instead, Soto lifted a shorthanded team in a city that was shortchanged this weekend.
And it all felt worth the wait.