NEW YORK -- Two years and four days had passed since Yoenis Céspedes last appeared in a Major League game; it hardly took a cynic to think he might never play again. In addition to a pair of surgeries to remove calcification in his heels, Céspedes underwent a third operation to repair his right ankle, which he fractured in a ranch accident. Younger players had failed to return from less. At the least, the heady days of Céspedes’ career seemed long in the past.
All the while, he smoldered. One of the beating hearts of the Mets’ 2015 World Series run, Céspedes talks openly about how all the public doubt drove him to work harder than ever. Over the winter, he released a hype video featuring footage of his training regimen set against the voices of his doubters. When the Mets slashed his salary as a result of the ranch accident, he used that as motivation, too. Each morning during baseball’s coronavirus shutdown, he awoke at 5 a.m. to train.
Then, in the seventh inning of a scoreless Opening Day game at Citi Field on Friday, Céspedes began to make good on his promises of a renaissance. When Chris Martin left a 93 mph fastball over the outer edge of home plate, Céspedes crushed it 406 feet, depositing it nearly all the way up the lower seating bowl in left field to give Jacob deGrom and the Mets the only run they would need in a 1-0 win over the Braves.
“He’s been waiting to get healthy, to get back into a lineup, to get back into playing,” manager Luis Rojas said. “And then he does that.”
As recently as June, significant doubt lingered as to what Céspedes could provide the Mets this season. But when Major League Baseball adopted the universal designated hitter as part of its return-to-play policies, Céspedes became more viable in an instant. No longer did it matter if he could play left field, or even if he could run the bases at peak efficiency. What mattered was that Céspedes could swing a bat.
“I don’t care if he had taken a five-year hiatus,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “Every time he gets in the batter’s box, you’re worried. He’s such a presence, and that’s what he is capable of.”
That only a solitary run was necessary was thanks in large part to deGrom, who struck out eight Braves over five innings of one-hit ball before departing due to pitch-count concerns. After deGrom ran his career-best scoreless streak to 28 innings, Seth Lugo, Justin Wilson and Edwin Díaz did the rest, combining on the first 15-strikeout performance in an Opening Day shutout since at least 1901. The Mets improved to 39-20 all time on Opening Day, the best mark in Major League history.
Afterward, wearing a soggy jersey that his players had spattered with protein shakes and other clubhouse items to commemorate his first win, Rojas said he was “excited about a lot of things.” deGrom. Díaz. The simple fact that baseball is back. Nothing, however, could have thrilled him more than Céspedes, who became less of a mystery with his Opening Day homer.
“It proved to me that I can still be the same player I used to be,” Céspedes said though an interpreter.
“He missed two years because of injuries and sometimes that happens,” Díaz added. “But Yoenis comes in here, and he’s here to drop bombs.”
One home run does not mean Céspedes is about to go on the same type of tear he did in 2015, when he went deep 17 times in 31 games to lead the Mets to the National League East title. But it does mean that at age 34, he’s at least physically capable of those types of things.
Heading into Opening Day, his doing so was far from a guarantee. The Mets still don’t know how Céspedes’ body will hold up to the rigors of left field -- if they ever decide to play him there -- or if he can run the bases at more than 80% intensity -- the guideline Mets trainers gave him to keep his legs healthy. Those are worries for another day.
On Opening Day, the Mets were mostly just giddy to witness his success. When Céspedes homered, they exploded in the dugout as they reveled in their prodigal slugger’s return to stardom.
“It was very exciting just to be able to play again,” Céspedes said. “To be able to have a moment where I played and also hit the home run that decided the game, I don't have words for a situation like that.”