Inside an empty Nationals Park, there’s a hiccup of silence between contact, when ball meets wooden bat, and the next wave of fake crowd noise. Those moments are filled with cheers from the home or visiting dugout, whichever has reason to stir. And on Tuesday, in the Nationals’ 5-3 win over the New York Mets, that’s when Howie Kendrick received four bursts of praise from the bench.

Each was well-earned on a night that included a 67-minute rain delay before the eighth inning. Kendrick, in his first game back after missing two contests with upper-back stiffness, collected a homer and three singles. He drove in a run and scored another. The 37-year-old provided the middle-of-the-order punch that has been missing for most of this young season, with both him and Juan Soto missing time.

It was the offense, keyed by Kendrick, that nudged Washington’s record to 4-4. Soto, ­activated Tuesday afternoon after testing positive for the novel coronavirus July 23, was available to pinch-hit and not called upon. And after a storm came and went, and once Tanner Rainey had escaped a ­seventh-inning jam, relievers Javy Guerra and Daniel Hudson recorded the final six outs.

“With the stadium being so quiet, that’s all you can hear is the guys in the dugout, celebrating, pounding on stuff,” Kendrick said after the win. “We have fun with it, and that’s the team that I love. Guys being relaxed, enjoying the game and having fun.”

It had been five whole days since the Nationals last played a game. But for the rest of MLB, the stretch could have passed as five months. While Washington trained here, nestled in its own cocoon, baseball’s pandemic summer kept jolting back and forth.

The St. Louis Cardinals became the second team to experience a coronavirus outbreak. Commissioner Rob Manfred told ESPN that players had to do better, or else the season could shut down. The Miami Marlins and Cardinals were tried in the court of public opinion. Rumors flew about trips to the club, to the casino, to golf courses and so on. Somewhere amid the madness, MLB approved seven-inning doubleheaders to help clubs complete the 60-game schedule.

Milwaukee Brewers center fielder Lorenzo Cain opted out Saturday. On Monday, Derek Jeter, the Marlins’ president and CEO, asked everyone to give his guys some slack. On Tuesday, the Cardinals revealed six players who tested positive and waited for clearance to end their quarantine at a hotel in Milwaukee.

Then evening came and it was time to play ball.

“We do know there’s always a chance of something happening with games being cancelled,” said Patrick Corbin, who started for the Nationals after eight full days of rest. “You see that throughout baseball. Teams have to stay game-ready somehow, it’s obviously difficult.”

The break helped Washington heal, with both Soto and Kendrick returning in recent workouts. Soto watched the early innings from the stands, chatting with Emilio Bonifácio, then Bonifácio and Aníbal Sánchez, then a group of Bonifácio, Sánchez and Stephen Strasburg, who remains day-to-day with nerve irritation in his right hand.

Soto typically draws a crowd. And for his next act, he drew cameras by dancing atop the Nationals’ dugout. It has become tradition for Nationals to break it down after going yard. So after Kendrick ripped a solo shot in the first, Soto sprung out of his seat and joined in. Kendrick, having provided a 1-0 lead, jumped and stretched each limb as teammates clapped around him. Soto waved his arms and hopped around. Kendrick’s back looked fine. Soto quickly dissolved into a fit of laughter.

When Josh Harrison homered in the second, Soto was at it again. Harrison’s blast came in his second game with the Nationals, having signed a major league contract last week. It traveled 406 feet and well over the Mets’ bullpen in left. He soon made his way through the dance line. Soto leaped onto the dugout. His cleats clicked against its roof, mixing more into the odd soundtrack of fan-less games.

“When I saw the video, I was excited. We got another person who likes to dance,” Harrison said of Soto through a big smile. “So we can get down together.”

In the next inning, the bottom of the third, the Nationals tacked on three runs in the span of five batters. Kendrick started the rally with a single. Next Asdrúbal Cabrera doubled, Starlin Castro singled Kendrick in, Harrison hit a sacrifice fly to score Cabrera, and Carter Kieboom poked a single to bring Castro around from second.

Castro, the club’s new second baseman, has a hit in 11 of his 29 at-bats. Kieboom, the Nationals’ rookie third baseman who was charged with a throwing error and couldn’t handle a sharp grounder Tuesday, has now reached base in eight of his past 10 plate appearances.

Corbin needed the support despite cruising through the first two innings. Michael Conforto lofted a two-run homer in the fourth. In the fifth, after Kieboom’s error put men on first and third, Pete Alonso inched the Mets closer with a two-out, RBI single. Then Corbin wavered in the sixth, yielding back-to-back singles, before he was hooked after 102 pitches.

That kickstarted the bullpen, and Ryne Harper entered and stranded the runners inherited from Corbin. But his command slipped in the next inning, once back-to-back walks left a mess for Rainey. The 26-year-old has been Manager Dave Martinez’s go-to setup guy so far, and this was his toughest task yet: two runners on, no outs, facing the heart of New York’s order.

But Rainey needed 14 pitches to set down Alonso, Wilson Ramos and Conforto. Alonso struck out on a 96-mph fastball. Ramos flied out to shallow center, and Conforto did the same to left. Kendrick soon led off the bottom half with a single. Then, as if someone twisted a shower head, the park was drenched in rain.

Once it dried, leaving puddles where people once sat, Guerra and Hudson had the finishing touches. They punctuated another long day.

Read more on  MLB :