Juan-and-0! Nats open '21 with walk-off
WASHINGTON -- The Nationals waited over a year-and-a-half to play baseball in front of their home crowd -- plus another five days after their first series of 2021 was postponed because of positive COVID-19 test results.
In Tuesday’s season opener against the Braves, they put on a show with a 6-5 win that culminated with Juan Soto’s first Major League walk-off hit and a roaring celebration around Nats Park.
“There’s always a narrative coming into every single game,” starting pitcher Max Scherzer said. “We had some adversity, we dealt with it and we played well because of it.”
The Nationals took the field with a heavily edited 26-man roster, after 10 players began the season on the injured list, including two catchers (Alex Avila and Yan Gomes), a starting first baseman (Josh Bell), a starting second baseman (Josh Harrison), a starting left fielder (Kyle Schwarber), two starting southpaws (Patrick Corbin and Jon Lester) and a lefty closer (Brad Hand).
They’d also have to make up for an early deficit, after Scherzer allowed four solo home runs in the first three innings. That’s nothing too insurmountable for a team used to overcoming obstacles, especially for Scherzer, who stayed in the fight, found a rhythm and retired 12 of his last 13 batters.
“I’m proud of the boys -- they battled all game,” manager Dave Martinez said. “They don’t quit. … They’re going to play hard for nine innings, and you saw that tonight.”
Though shorthanded in players, the Nationals were fueled by the excitement and energy of 5,000 fans -- the first to fill the navy seats inside Nats Park since Game 5 of the 2019 World Series.
The afternoon began with many of the originally scheduled pregame ceremonies, including the raising of the championship flag in Center Field Plaza, fireworks during the starting lineup introductions and the presentation of the 2020 National League batting title and Silver Slugger awards to Soto. The crowd was there, cheering the whole time to help the Nats put the past week behind them.
“That’s why we play, is to play in front of these guys and girls and try to get the win for not only us, but them,” Trea Turner said.
So, when Soto found himself at the plate in the bottom of the ninth with two runners on and no outs in a 5-5 tie, he channeled the roar of the fans. Soto worked to a 3-0 count against Will Smith, and then sent a line-drive single to center field, driving home Victor Robles from second base. He also drove Nats Park into a frenzy. Seemingly unlikely with all his previous accomplishments, it was Soto’s first big league walk-off hit.
“I can’t even believe the late innings with the noise and the crowd, it just made my heart go a little bit quicker,” Soto said. “It feels nice to feel that, and to be back on the field with the fans and everything. It’s just an amazing feeling to play in front of a bunch of people that cheer for you.”
A week ago, the Nationals were planning on opening their season on Thursday against the Mets. They were planning to finalize a roster that came together smoothly in Spring Training. They were planning to stay on track with the workouts and training regimens they had planned out in camp.
Almost none of that went as planned, but writing out a memorable walk-off single in the ninth for the first win of 2021 wasn’t part of the script, either.
“For me, it was very emotional,” Martinez said of Tuesday. “It ended up really, really well.”