WASHINGTON – As the Washington Nationals, and their opponents, the Atlanta Braves, lined up for pregame introductions Tuesday, they stood near “OPENING WEEK” stencils in white paint beside the green-as-can-be grass along the baselines.
Who could have known it would take nearly a full week into the 2021 regular season before the coronavirus-hit Nationals would play — and, it turned out, beat Atlanta 6-5?
And who could have imagined that the stadium announcer's enthusiastic shout to spectators — yes, 5,000 were permitted, socially distanced, after being banned last season, and 4,801 showed up — presenting “Your 2021 Washington Nationals!” would be rather misleading, because more than a third of what was supposed to be the 26-man roster was absent?
“Just to have that atmosphere back here at Nationals Park, it was welcome,” Max Scherzer said after giving up a homer on the first pitch of the game and four solo shots in all during the initial three innings. “I don’t understand why we can't have more fans here.”
The Nationals finally got started five days later than they were supposed to, delayed because of an outbreak in which four players tested positive for COVID-19 and seven others were told to quarantine after contact tracing deemed they potentially were exposed to the illness.
“Obviously they want to be here and they want to be with the team. That’s a struggle for them,” manager Dave Martinez said before the game. “But overall, they’re in good shape. They feel good. They can’t wait to be back.”
The fans on hand clearly were thrilled, finding any excuse to clap or cheer, whether when a flag noting the team's 2019 World Series title was raised on the concourse beyond left field — it originally was lifted in July 2020, without anyone in the stands to see it — or when Scherzer walked from the dugout to right field to begin his pre-start routine.
“Oh, man, it’s been a long time coming,” Martinez said. “It’s good for us. It’s good for baseball. And it’s good for the city.”
It got downright raucous by the end, when Juan Soto's single in the bottom of the ninth broke a tie, setting off a wild celebration on the diamond and in the seats.
“Being back is fun. Playing is fun,” said Trea Turner, who hit a two-run homer. “Winning is fun.”
Previously shuttered concession stands were open, selling hot dogs and the rest — with sign-of-the-times touchless condiment machines nearby. Team store mannequins were decked out in Nationals jerseys, caps — and sign-of-the-times masks emblazoned with the team name.
“Somewhat normal,” is how Turner described the setting.
On the field, though, this was not the full version of the Nationals that GM Mike Rizzo assembled in an attempt to move past a tied-for-last finish in 2020.
Among the missing: two members of the vaunted rotation — Jon Lester and Patrick Corbin — new closer Brad Hand, and four starting position players: left fielder Kyle Schwarber, first baseman Josh Bell, second baseman Josh Harrison and catcher Yan Gomes.
All were put on the 10-day injured list Tuesday, as were backup catcher Alex Avila and reserve infielder Jordy Mercer. No reason was given for those nine moves; a 10th player who went on the IL, reliever Will Harris, was identified as having inflammation in his right hand.
“When we get these guys back, we’ll be ready,” Martinez said. “For right now, I feel like we're going to be able to compete, even with the guys we’ve got.”
But at least the Nationals were playing.
Washington’s season-opening three-game series against the New York Mets was scrapped because of the home team’s outbreak; so was Monday’s series-opener against Atlanta, which will be made up in a doubleheader Wednesday.
“It's kind of part of the craziness that we’ve all been part of the last year-plus,” said Ryan Zimmerman, who opted out of last season because of COVID-19 worries and started at first base Tuesday. “You’ve just got to stay ready and be ready to go when it’s time to play.”
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