Positive moments overshadowed in opening night loss

There were moments during tonight’s season opener in which the optimistic among the crowd of 35,052 at Nationals Park could squint and see the potential. Keibert Ruiz shined at the plate and behind the plate. Alcides Escobar made a fantastic play in the field to prevent a run from scoring. Patrick Corbin looked quite good, at least for 3 2/3 innings. And Juan Soto homered.

All of those could be viewed as positive early signs for a rebuilding team that is going to need them. Alas, positive signs do not necessarily equal curly W’s in the book, and a lot more is going to have to go right on a nightly basis for the Nationals to emerge victorious.

Not enough did go right tonight during a 5-1 opening night loss to the Mets that was delayed by rain, began in front of a less-than-capacity crowd and ended with only a fraction of those still in attendance at the end of a cold, wet night.

A Nationals lineup that on paper looks potent scored its lone run on Soto’s sixth-inning homer, unable to make a dent into emergency Mets opening night starter Tylor Megill (five scoreless frames) or the four relievers who followed.

And a Nationals bullpen that was a major problem late last season picked up right where it left off, surrendering a pair of runs in the sixth and another in the seventh to leave the lineup facing an even larger deficit it could not overcome.

It all made for a fairly depressing opener to the 18th season of Nationals baseball, one that begins with expectations for the club the lowest they’ve been since probably the club’s sixth season in town.

“It’s opening day, one day,” manager Davey Martinez said, echoing a mantra he was already preaching prior to Game 1 of 162.

The original March 31 opening day (at the Mets) had already been postponed due to the 99-day lockout, leaving today as the season’s new opening day (home against the Mets). Until the forecast of rain prompted officials on Wednesday to push back the start time from 4:05 p.m. to 7:05 p.m., just to be safe. Until the rain hung around longer than expected, pushing the actual first pitch of the 2022 season to 8:20 p.m.

The ballpark was hardly at full capacity when a tribute video to Max Scherzer aired on the scoreboard and the now-Mets right-hander emerged from the visitors’ dugout to doff his cap and wave to the crowd. And when Corbin finally took the mound for the second opening day start of his career, first for the Nats, the vibe wasn’t, perhaps, what we’ve come to expect from an opening day crowd around here over the last decade, which was perhaps appropriate given the team’s current rebuilding situation.

Corbin, though, was up to the challenge, aided in no small part by his teammates in the field. The left-hander retired 10 in a row during one stretch, effectively using a sinker inside to right-handed batters along with his trademark slider to record four strikeouts.

And when Corbin did get into trouble, his defense bailed him out. Ruiz fired a strike to César Hernández to nab Starling Marte trying to steal second base in the top of the first. Three innings later, Escobar ranged way to his right to get to Victor Robles’ offline throw from deep center field and still managed to unleash a perfect throw to Ruiz to nail Pete Alonso at the plate and end the top of the fourth with the game still scoreless.

“It was a very close play,” Ruiz said. “He was able to make that throw perfectly, and we got the out.”

Corbin did seem to run out of steam at that point, though. He failed to retire any of the last six batters he faced, his night coming to an unceremonious end when an errant slider caught James McCann on the back foot, forcing in the season’s first run. He departed having thrown 76 pitches and having not recorded an out in the fifth, perhaps in part a sign of the condensed spring that didn’t allow starters to build up their arms as much as they normally would.

“I felt pretty good the whole game,” Corbin said. “I thought the fastball command was good. I was able to mix it up. Just in that fifth (inning) there, frustrated with the walk to get a couple guys on. That got the pitch count up there and kind of got me into a jam.”

Thus did the game fall into the hands of a new-look, 10-man Nationals bullpen, the first man summoned being one of four non-roster invitees to spring training to make the club: Víctor Arano. The former Phillies right-hander did everything he could to escape a bases-loaded, no-out jam, inducing back-to-back grounders to third. Maikel Franco, though, could only convert the 5-3 double play on the latter of the two, ultimately allowing one of the inherited runners to score.

What transpired after that felt eerily familiar for anyone who watched on a nightly basis last August and September. Martinez would send a reliever to the mound, and that reliever would not be able to post a zero on the scoreboard. Austin Voth allowed two runs in the sixth, unable to record the third out. Andres Machado finished that inning but couldn’t get through the seventh without allowing another run to score. All told, Nationals pitchers issued four walks while hitting three Mets batters.

“Our pitching’s got to keep us in the game,” Martinez said. “I didn’t like the three batters hit with two strikes, that’s for sure. That’s got to go away fairly quickly.”

The steadily thinning crowd had been lulled to sleep at points, at least until Soto woke them all up with a 428-foot blast into the second deck in right field. That bottom-of-the-sixth homer, the 99th of Soto’s still-young career, gave the Nationals their first run of the season. And when Josh Bell and Ruiz followed with two-out singles to bring the tying run to the plate, the crowd tried to get back into it.

The good vibes were short-lived, though. Lane Thomas grounded out to end that rally, and the Nationals proceeded into the late innings of a late opening night game that didn’t do much to allay the pessimistic view of what the 2022 season may have in store for us.

“It feels great to be back in D.C. and feel all the love from the crowd,” Soto said. “It just feels amazing for me. I know things didn’t go our way. But I know at the end of the day, we all gave our 100 percent and we tried as much as we could.”

 

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