WASHINGTON — Their opening day, already delayed five days, began with a meet-and-greet between longtime ace Max Scherzer and recently signed catcher Jonathan Lucroy.
It ended with manager Davey Martinez lifting his franchise player, Juan Soto, off the ground in joy, acting for a moment like he did not want to let go.
Tuesday afternoon, the Washington Nationals finally got to play baseball, last of 30 major league teams to take the field and the only one to reside in what can only be described as the big leagues’ middle place.
It is no longer 2019 – yet due to the fact a global pandemic prevented their fans from seeing a banner fly high above Nationals Park, they raised another pregame toast to their first World Series championship team.
It is no longer 2020 – yet COVID-19, while beaten down, is not yet out, and so four Nationals who have tested positive for the coronavirus and seven more flagged for contact tracing were nowhere near the ballpark.
It is 2021, and Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber are supposed to represent a turning of the page from a growing-fuzzy title run and into a five-way fight for the National League East.
Instead, they are in the group of stalwart vets confined to the sidelines, 11 temps taking their place, five pressed into service against the reigning division champion Atlanta Braves.
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Juan Soto reacts after hitting a walk-off single against the Braves on Tuesday. (Photo: Brad Mills, USA TODAY Sports)
Pandemic baseball is no way to live, which is why players – even some reluctantly – are lining up for vaccinations and adhering to protocols and wanting to avoid what befell the Nationals: A start-of-season outbreak that’s a tribute to a terrible virus’ capricious nature.
So they played Game No. 1 after many teams had five in the books and found out that this year of transition in baseball – mid-pandemic, at the least – doesn’t have to be a nightmare.
After 3 hours and 10 minutes, after idling most of the last week, Soto devoured a 3-and-0 fastball from Braves reliever Will Smith, driving home Victor Robles with the winning run, and the Nationals already felt a difference from a grim and lost 2020.
The crowd, not quite 5,000 due to local regulations, roared as loudly as they could. Soto’s teammates scrambled to the dugout for the de rigeuer mobbing of the game-winning hero after his first career walk-off hit – though with a passion Martinez said was invisible in last year’s 60-game sprint.
And after Soto disengaged from his merry mates, bearer of a 6-5 victory, Martinez blocked his path and embraced him – days and days of roster and pandemic logistics giving way to weary joy.
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If this is what baseball in 2021 will look like, consider it a significant if tentative, upgrade from last year’s slog.
“It was very emotional,” Martinez said of an opener that began with a 19-player set of transactions and ended with comebacks from 3-0 and 5-4. “It ended up really, really well. I’m going to relax, sit in my office and enjoy a glass of wine.
“I did not want to play any more innings. We have two games tomorrow.”
Martinez’s sobering message – OK, addled with perhaps a bit of cabernet – was a reminder the Nationals and Braves will play two on Wednesday, because they did not play on a perfectly good Monday. It was a reminder that at some point, they’ll have to make up three games with the New York Mets after a three-game season-opening series was wiped out as the Nationals and MLB tried to get their arms around the greased pig of a COVID-19 outbreak that unfortunately seeded itself as the club flew home from spring training.
Those makeups will come in due time. Win No. 1 was for many to savor.
Start with Lucroy. The veteran catcher was awaiting a job – and admittedly eyeing the carrot of 10 years major-league service time and the pension that comes with it.
He is just days shy of that mark, yet knows it might not come with the Nationals. Catchers Alex Avila and Yan Gomes, Scherzer indicated, shouldn’t be sidelined too long as they await clearance.
Perhaps that’s why Lucroy couldn’t bring himself to refer to the Nationals as “we” on Wednesday. Instead, Keanu Reeves was his muse.
“I feel like a mercenary, kind of,” Lucroy said, “like Shane Falco in 'The Replacements.' But hey, I’m playing baseball. It’s going to be great, regardless. Almost 10 years (service), I’m almost there, and I’m OK with whatever happens.
“These guys got a special clubhouse. I’m just happy to be a small part of it right now.”
Turns out Lucroy drove home the season’s first two runs with a second-inning double, even as he struggled initially to click with Scherzer, who yielded four solo home runs but also struck out nine.
Lucroy and Scherzer talked Monday, met Tuesday and avoided enough sweet spots to keep the Braves winless. A potential go-ahead Braves homer was reversed, enabling Soto to send the fans – yep, the fans – home happy.
“It feels amazing,” Soto said. “It’s crazy how good it feels. I can’t even believe the ninth inning, with the roar of the crowd, makes my heart go quicker. It’s just a great feeling.”
Soon, he’ll get to share that with many more of his friends. And perhaps 2021 will truly gain its own, thrilling baseball identity.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Gabe Lacques on Twitter @GabeLacques.
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