The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nationals’ opener features the new, the old — and a loss to the Mets

The New York Mets and Washington Nationals line up for the national anthem Thursday night at Nationals Park, where the hosts dropped their season opener, 5-1. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

A bit of simple math found Lane Thomas in the sixth inning. The Washington Nationals trailed the New York Mets by three runs late Thursday night. Nationals Park, the site of what has become an annual Opening Day matchup for the division rivals, had all but emptied out, thanks to a 76-minute rain delay that pushed the game toward when the nearby Metro station would close its doors.

With runners on the corners, though, Thomas had a chance to be a two-out spark. A single or walk would have extended the rally after Juan Soto just crushed a solo homer off Mets reliever Trevor May. A homer, well, that would have tied the score, giving the remaining fans a good little story to tell. It was the sort of scenario that restores order each spring, when the gates open, grills heat and baseball returns, no matter the outlook for the local team.

But Thomas, Washington’s 26-year-old left fielder, only bounced into a force out up the middle, quietly ushering the Nationals to a 5-1 defeat. Soto accounted for their lone run. They had some quick flashes of promise within a poor result. Their supporters should probably get accustomed to this.

“These guys are pretty good,” Soto, who batted second, said when asked for his feelings on the lineup. “Our bottom half, it’s just fast runners and everything. I think that they’re going to be on base for me and I think we’re going to be fine.”

Juan Soto and the evolution of pressure

Before first pitch, there was the old and familiar: a long weather delay. Club officials wearing their World Series rings from 2019. Max Scherzer, the leader of that title team, the Hall of Fame-bound pitcher who will face the Nationals as a visiting pitcher Friday, being recognized with a video tribute, ending with Scherzer tipping his cap to a standing, cheering crowd.

There was the new: Patrick Corbin breaking a decade-long streak of either Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg starting Opening Day for Washington. Veterans César Hernández and Nelson Cruz sandwiching Soto in the batting order. Josiah Gray, the pitcher acquired for Scherzer at last July’s deadline, getting one of the louder pregame ovations, right there with Soto and reliever Sean Doolittle.

And then, at last, there was a baseball game.

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D.C. has learned to not take that for granted in early April. Two springs ago, in the afterglow of a championship, the home opener and banner raising were canceled by the coronavirus pandemic. Last year, a virus outbreak wiped out the opening weekend series, forcing the Nationals to isolate while everyone else played. So after those disappointments — not to mention a three-month lockout this winter — what was a messy forecast Thursday, amounting to a few extra hours of waiting in the rain?

The first few innings of the season belonged to Corbin; his catcher, Keibert Ruiz; and shortstop Alcides Escobar. Working his fastballs inside to righties, Corbin blanked the Mets with 61 pitches through four, twice striking out Francisco Lindor looking. Ruiz — also netted in the trade that sent Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Los Angeles Dodgers — threw out a runner in the first, doubled in the second and capped a stunning relay to finish the fourth. Escobar, the 35-year-old shortstop, was at the center of it.

Ruiz was 4 when the Milwaukee Brewers signed Escobar as an international free agent in 2003. But on a squad glued together with fringe veterans, Escobar and Ruiz, now 23, both play premium defensive positions, showing General Manager Mike Rizzo’s preferred blend of old and young. And for at least one night, Escobar hid his age with a single, then a diving swim move to avoid a tag at first, then a strong throw from deep in the hole, then a laser to Ruiz in the fourth-inning relay.

Eduardo Escobar, the Mets’ third baseman, started the sequence with a double to the left-center gap. Victor Robles fielded it and fired wide of Alcides Escobar, leaving the shortstop to scramble in shallow center. Yet Escobar recovered to beat Alonso by inches at home, with Ruiz applying a quick tag on Alonso’s outstretched hand.

The whole stadium roared in approval. Corbin didn’t record another out.

“That fifth there, they get the [leadoff] bunt and I’m just frustrated with the walk to get a couple guys on," said Corbin, whose final line was four innings plus four batters, two earned runs, a pair of walks and four strikeouts. "And then that kind of got the pitch count up and I kind of got into a jam and got out there.”

Corbin’s start unraveled once Robinson Cano beat the shift with a bunt down the third base line. After that, Corbin walked Mark Canha, yielded a single to Jeff McNeil and plunked James McCann with a literal back-foot slider. That nudged the Mets ahead by a run. And while McCann limped toward first, Manager Dave Martinez left the dugout and signaled for right-hander Victor Arano in the bullpen.

The Mets scored again when Starling Marte dribbled a grounder to third, though Arano otherwise limited the damage. Corbin threw 76 pitches to inch away from 2021, the worst season of his career (and, by most metrics, one of the worst seasons for any starter last year). The Mets stretched their lead against reliever Austin Voth in the sixth, slapping a pair of two-out RBI singles, before tagging Andrés Machado for another run in the seventh.

“I didn’t like the three batters hit with two strikes, that’s for sure,” Martinez said, referencing mistakes by Corbin, Machado and Mason Thompson. “I mean, that’s got to go away fairly quickly."

On the other side, Washington’s offense did nothing aside from Soto’s upper-deck shot in the sixth. After Ruiz, who finished with a single and double, the Nationals’ sixth through ninth hitters went 1 for 13 with six strikeouts. The bats were quieted by Mets starter Tylor Megill, filling in for the injured Jacob deGrom, and relievers Adam Ottavino, Seth Lugo and Edwin Díaz.

In the end, it felt perfectly fitting that a cold, wet, gray afternoon bled into a thud of a night for the Nationals. They now get to decide what sort of foreshadowing that may be.

“Today was a long day for everyone,” Martinez added. “So we’ll come back, get some rest and come back tomorrow and play baseball again.”

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