It is Max Scherzer throwing batting practice to the Atlanta Braves, who hit his first, 11th, 16th and 39th pitches over the fence, no-doubt homers all. And it’s also Max Scherzer, grunting and grinding his way through six innings, retiring 12 of the final 13 Atlanta hitters he faced, a competitor in perpetuity.
It is Juan Soto, the preternatural talent, powering through a 93-mph fastball from Atlanta reliever Will Smith as if it had disrespected his mother. The laser beam reached center field at Nationals Park so quickly that Atlanta outfielder Cristian Pache — in that position because of his speed — couldn’t cut it off. It scooted all the way to the wall and became the signature single that won this opener, 6-5.
It is Soto dancing and leaping and tossing his helmet after this ninth-inning walk-off that added to his legend — in front of fans, who leaped and smiled and soaked it in after such a long time away.
And it is everything in between.
“Just joy,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “Being back is fun. Playing is fun. Winning is fun.”
Baseball is fun.
It is Jonathan Lucroy, the veteran catcher who was at home in Texas when the season was supposed to start. He signed Saturday, was cleared to play Monday night, caught three-time Cy Young Award-winning Scherzer on spec, then doubled in the Nats’ first two runs of the season. An instant legend.
It is Turner, completing an early-inning comeback with a two-run homer in the third. But more than that, it’s Carter Kieboom — demoted off the Opening Day roster because of shaky confidence, returned to the Opening Day roster because of the Nats’ coronavirus outbreak — working a savvy full-count walk as a pinch hitter. It’s Victor Robles, who so lengthens the lineup if he can lead off, walking twice, hard-earned passes to first, and then singling to the opposite field to start the winning rally in the ninth.
It’s Daniel Hudson — making his first appearance in front of Nats fans since he closed out the 2019 World Series title — watching a ball scorched by Pache toward the left field foul pole. Third base umpire Carlos Torres called it fair. Pache circled the bases. The Nats protested. The fans in left protested. The umps gathered — and reversed the call. Hudson struck out Pache and pushed the game to the bottom of the ninth, still tied.
It’s the layers that make up the sport.
And this — all of this — is what played out.
“It was just amazing to watch the boys go out there and play,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “And, hey, I can’t say this enough: Having our fans back was awesome. You heard ’em. The boys heard ’em. … We missed that. We missed that all 2020.”
If these weren’t the circumstances — if the sport and the country and the world hadn’t been wrestling with a potentially deadly airborne virus for more than a year — and a photo taken by a drone over the ballpark revealed the crowd that assembled here Tuesday, a no-context guess about what was taking place might have been, “14th inning against the Marlins on a 100-degree day in August?” Or, “People who waited out a two-hour rain delay against the Diamondbacks on a chilly night in April?” It would not have screamed, “Opening Day!”
That’s how physically distanced the crowd of 4,801, mandated by D.C.’s current pandemic rules, felt. This was, by big league standards in any other time, a sparse gathering. One game in, and it already seems like we could see more fans by the next homestand, which starts April 15. Or maybe May? The entire upper deck was empty — other than Screech, the mascot, wearing a mask and keeping his distance from everyone. Maybe a few more (vaccinated) souls could be allowed sometime this spring, Madam Mayor?
“I don’t understand why there weren’t fans in the upper deck,” Scherzer said. “… That doesn’t make sense to me. I would love an explanation.”
The fans who were allowed in, man did they cheer — as Scherzer walked to the bullpen to warm up, as Stephen Strasburg was introduced, when Turner tied it with his homer in the third. So many elements swirled together to make up those roars. Relief and joy, both penned up over these long months, were chief among them. But there was a non-manufactured normalcy, too. We’re done with the cardboard cutouts and the canned crowd noise. Bob McDonald with the anthem and D.C. Washington belting out “God Bless America”? Yes, please. A beer and a dog and the right to boo Freddie Freeman? Serve it all up to Nats fans.
“It feels amazing,” Soto said. “I can’t even believe ... the late innings, with the noise and the crowd, it made my heart go a little bit quicker.”
No one can or will say how long many of the players sidelined by the coronavirus and contact tracing will be out. “As soon as we can get them back, we’ll get them back on the field” was all Martinez could offer, which isn’t much.
For posterity, here’s who ended up being left off the roster: projected starting first baseman Josh Bell, projected starting second baseman Josh Harrison, projected starting left fielder Kyle Schwarber, both big league catchers in Yan Gomes and Alex Avila, projected closer Brad Hand and Nos. 3 and 4 starters Patrick Corbin and Jon Lester. That’s a mouthful, and what’s ahead is a handful.
It was hard enough to wait since Thursday — when the Nats’ original opener against the New York Mets was postponed, and then the whole series wiped out. But it is also going to be hard to win ballgames with this roster against this schedule. The Braves, winners of three straight National League East crowns, are now 0-4. They’re not going to go 0-162. They’ll get theirs, and each victory against them will be difficult.
So, then, a perfect place to start. After Soto had celebrated with his teammates near second base — getting water dumped on him, bouncing in a bunch — he headed for the first base line and put on a headset for a postgame interview. The crowd, not yet filtered out, chanted loudly:
“Let’s go, So-to! Let’s go, So-to!”
The 22-year-old star thrust his hand in the air. Baseball was back in D.C. There was a win to celebrate with fans on hand. There’s a doubleheader Wednesday. How good is that?
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