WASHINGTON – The coronavirus-shortened Major League Baseball season finally started amid the pandemic Thursday night with plenty of unusual elements — zero fans, umpires wearing masks, Washington star Juan Soto sidelined by COVID-19, all Nationals and Yankees kneeling together before the national anthem.
“It’s hard to describe. That’s 2020 in a nutshell,” said Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle, who was supposed to catch Dr. Anthony Fauci's way-off-the-mark ceremonial first pitch. “Very emotional day. Very, very emotional day.”
And there was plenty that actually made it all seem something resembling normal: Gerrit Cole's five terrific innings, big hits from Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge and a 4-1 storm-halted victory for the big-name Yankees over the defending champion Nationals.
““It was a lot of fun. No one could have envisioned the type of year we’re having this year, but within those parameters, it exceeded every mark," said Cole, who allowed only Adam Eaton's first-inning homer and joked about recording a complete game. "I just had a blast.”
Max Scherzer, who struck out 11 but gave up all of New York's runs, chose to look at the bright side, saying: “I'd rather be playing baseball than not. That’s the way I look at it. All the things we can get negative about and cry about, I'm just not going to do it.”
What began as a muggy evening turned into a dark, windy downpour, replete with rumbles of thunder and flashes of lightning, prompting a delay in the top of the sixth inning.
After waiting 1 hour, 58 minutes — 15 minutes more than were played — the game was called off and goes into the books as a win for New York.
Three-time Cy Young Award winner Scherzer (0-1) served up a two-run homer to 2017 NL MVP Stanton that traveled 459 feet in the first, an RBI double to 2017 AL Rookie of the Year Judge in the third, and an RBI single to Stanton in the fifth.
Cole (1-0) looked every bit the player the Yankees hoped for when they signed him as a free agent to a $324 million, nine-year contract, the largest deal for a pitcher. He was terrific other than Eaton’s drive -- the ball landed on one of the blue advertising tarps now stretching over unused seats at Nationals Park.
This was the official beginning of what is planned as a regular season with just 60 games -- instead of the customary 162 -- with, at least at the outset, no spectators -- instead of the 40,000 or so that usually would be at opening day in D.C. -- and with key rules changes.
Those include Thursday’s agreement to expand the playoffs from 10 to 16 teams; using designated hitters in every game, not just at American League ballparks; and the gimmicky runner-on-second-base to start each half-inning in extras.
In these most polarized of times in the United States, there certainly were those pleased, and maybe relieved, that one of the main North American team sports -- the so-called national pastime -- finally was back, playing real games.
“I found it easy to get locked into the game,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. "I had a lot of butterflies today coming to the ballpark and sorting through all the different things to get ready
And there also were, to be sure, those wondering whether it’s a good idea to play these games as the COVID-19 outbreak grows worse in parts of the country.
The pregame ceremony included nods to the Nationals’ title and the Black Lives Matter movement -- players from both teams jointly held a long black piece of cloth, then knelt in unison.
“There's a lot of injustice in this world and a lot of bad things going on, so we just wanted to show that we’re aware of it,” Judge said. “Start the conversation. Start the change.”
The 266 days between the final game of the World Series -- Scherzer started Game 7 for Washington against Cole’s former team, the Houston Astros -- and Thursday marked the longest gap between games since professional baseball leagues started in 1871.
“A long wait,” Yankees shortstop Gleyber Torres said.
There all sorts sorts of protocols intended to keep folks safe, including a ban on players spitting, umpires wearing masks, and frequent testing for the new coronavirus -- Soto went on the special injured list for the illness Thursday after his positive result came back.
"It was a really harsh reminder how tenuous this situation is,” Doolittle said about Soto.
Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman already was on that list. Two Nationals players who would have been on the roster — Ryan Zimmerman and Joe Ross — opted out of the season because of health-related concerns.
Even if the stadium was closed to the public, some folks did watch from balconies on at least one nearby high-rise building. Meanwhile, fake crowd noise was piped in through the stadium speakers, adding a bizarre element to an eerie atmosphere.
“It felt odd,” Judge said. “It definitely felt odd.”
After Friday’s day off, the series resumes Saturday, with World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg pitching against New York’s James Paxton. There is rain in the forecast.
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