They came wearing their masks and had their temperatures taken and stayed distanced from everyone else in attendance because they wanted to witness precisely this moment. Bottom of the ninth, tie game, Juan Soto at the plate.
It’s the kind of situation the sellout crowd of 4,801 for the first ballgame at Nationals Park with fans in attendance in 18 months live for. And, to be honest, it’s exactly the kind of situation the team itself sorely missed experiencing.
The 2019 Nationals owned those kind of situations, feeding off their crowd. But with nobody in the park, the 2020 Nationals flailed in the same spot, going 0-24 in games they trailed after seven innings.
If you want reason to believe 2021 will be different, look no further than the result in Game 1, when Soto drove a 3-0 fastball from Braves reliever Will Smith into center field for the RBI single that gave the Nats a stirring 6-5 victory on a most unusual (but most appreciated) opening day on South Capitol Street.
“Last year, you get down 2-0, and ... not that you quit, but you’re like: ‘Eh, we didn’t get out to a lead today,’ you’re just kind of playing the game,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “I felt like last year, sometimes we were almost going through the motions. But I feel like with that crowd, when you’re down 2-0 and you’ve got two runners on and they get loud for you, it’s like: ‘All right! Let’s get this thing going!’
“It definitely felt like 2019, but I think it’s the stadium. It’s the fans. It’s just the atmosphere. And that’s why we play: to play in front of these guys and girls, and try to get the win not only for us but for them as well.”
And nobody gets those guys and girls fired up like Soto does. Everyone in the park was on his or her feet when the 22-year-old superstar stepped to the plate with two on and nobody out in the bottom of the ninth. They cheered each of Smith’s three balls to open the at-bat, then waited with anticipation to see if Soto would take a hack at the next pitch.
Oh, he did.
“I’m swinging every time,” he said of the 3-0 count. “I know he’s going to come with the fastball, cause his slider was not (being thrown for) too many for strikes. So I just sat on the fastball and was ready for it.”
Despite an 0-for-4 afternoon to that point, Soto had hit the ball hard in his eighth-inning at-bat. And he certainly hit the ball hard in his final at-bat, drilling a 115.3 mph laser back up the middle, the ball falling harmlessly to the turf and skipping by center fielder Christian Pache as Victor Robles raced around to score the winning run and the dugout spilled onto the field to mob Soto.
It was the first walk-off hit of Soto’s big league career. He believes his previous one came when he was playing at low Single-A Hagerstown (which, to be fair, was only three years ago).
“It’s just crazy how good it feels,” he said.
It was a stirring conclusion to a wild opener that was delayed five days by a COVID-19 outbreak and featured all sorts of unexpected characters as a result.
A ballgame that featured all manner of wild occurrences early on - four solo homers off Max Scherzer, clutch at-bats from players who were never supposed to make the roster in the first place - settled down in the middle innings and then was decided late by both bullpens.
The Braves took a 5-4 lead in the top of the seventh on a single, a bunt single, a walk and an RBI chopper over the mound against reliever Kyle Finnegan, who probably deserved a better fate.
The Nationals, though, rallied in the bottom of the eighth to tie the game on a string of quality at-bats, some by regulars, others by not-so-regulars. Ryan Zimmerman, playing his first big league contest since Game 7 of the 2019 World Series, started it off with a single to left, his second of the afternoon. Starlin Castro followed with another single to left, at which point manager Davey Martinez elected to send Luis García out to pinch-run for Zimmerman.
Hernán Pérez, the unexpected starting second baseman, worked a walk to load the bases. And Andrew Stevenson, pressed into starting duties despite facing nothing but left-handers, delivered his fourth quality at-bat of the game with an infield single that brought home the tying run to set up the ninth-inning drama.
“It was just amazing to watch the boys go out and play,” Martinez said. “And I can’t say it enough: Having our fans back was just awesome. The boys could hear them. They were fired up in the dugout every time we had something going, and the fans were behind them. We missed that. We missed that all of 2020, and it showed today.”
After a muted but welcome pregame ceremony featuring the typical (player intros, the national anthem) and the atypical (a tribute video and moment of silence for the 500,000-plus lost to COVID-19, the re-raising of the 2019 World Series flag for the first time in front of fans) Martinez grabbed a microphone and formally welcomed everyone back to the ballpark. The fourth-year manager yelled out “Play ball!” as the crowd roared and Ronald Acuña Jr. dug in to face Scherzer.
And wouldn’t you know what happened next. Scherzer threw a fastball over the plate to get the season underway, and Acuña blasted it into the left field bullpen for a lightning-quick 1-0 Braves lead.
And they weren’t done. Two batters later, reigning National League MVP Freddie Freeman took Scherzer deep to right-center to make it 2-0 and continue a somewhat disturbing trend. In each of his last three opening day starts, Scherzer has served up at least one first-inning homer (Acuña and Freeman today, Giancarlo Stanton in 2020, Robinson Canó in 2019).
“I was executing pitches, and then get sloppy and leave one over the middle of the plate,” he said. “I just wasn’t quite executing on full-tilt there early. You’ve got to live with that. You turn the page and move on.”
Scherzer’s struggles, though, weren’t confined to the top of the first this time. He opened both the second and third innings by allowing homers: one to Dansby Swanson, then another to Acuña. Thus, four of Atlanta’s first 10 batters today homered off Scherzer, who to his credit didn’t allow any other baserunners to that point.
The ace’s teammates helped erase those early runs, scoring twice a piece in the second and third inning, once from an unlikely source, once from a very likely one.
Jonathan Lucroy, signed over the weekend and thrust into the lineup as Scherzer’s catcher after both Yan Gomes and Alex Avila wound up on the injured list for undisclosed reasons, came up to bat for the first time with two on and two out and promptly sneaked a ball inside the third base line. Bob Henley, back coaching third base after a year in exile on the other side of the diamond, subtly waved Stevenson around, and Lucroy had himself a two-run double.
“I was 100 percent focused,” said Lucroy, who was released by the White Sox at the end of spring training. “I haven’t seen live pitching in probably a week and some change. I know these guys haven’t, either. Everyone was just trying to get their timing down and see velocity and all that. I was just trying to go up there, have good at-bats and hit the ball hard.”
The third-inning rally looked a bit more familiar to fans, with a twist. Robles, entrusted with the leadoff spot, drew a walk to bring Turner to the plate. Martinez wants to get Turner out of the No. 1 spot, hoping he’ll get more opportunities to drive in runs. Which is precisely what he did, driving in both Robles and himself with a blast to left off Drew Smyly.
As the Nationals Park crowd let out its first truly spontaneous roar in 18 months, Turner rounded the bases, having tied the game 4-4 and given his starter new life.
Scherzer took full advantage of it. Mixing up his repertoire better and avoided the center of the plate, he retired 12 of the last 13 batters he faced, striking out six of them. He finished with nine strikeouts and zero walks, his afternoon over after he walked off the mound to end the sixth with his pitch count at 91.
It was far from his best, but it was far better than it looked like things were headed earlier in the day.
“They’re a great team,” Scherzer said of the now 0-4 Braves. “You make mistakes at any time, they make you pay. Weird, frustrating start, but we won the game. That’s what matters most.”
That, and the fact they won this game in front of their fans, a feeling neither side of that equation had been able to enjoy in far too long.