The time for being surprised by what Juan Soto can do on the baseball field is over. When the Washington Nationals’ long-awaited, COVID-19 outbreak-delayed opening day game is tied at the bottom of the ninth inning, don’t be surprised that it’s Soto, the 22-year-old MVP frontrunner, who hits the walk-off RBI single to send the Nationals home with a 6-5 win over the Atlanta Braves. His teammates aren’t. This is what Soto does now.
The only real surprise was that Tuesday night marked Soto’s first walk-off hit in the major leagues.
“He’s just such a good hitter, it seems like he comes out there and comes through for us quite a bit,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said after the win.
With the game tied at 5-5 in the bottom of the ninth inning, Victor Robles on second base, and Trea Turner on first, Soto took a 3-0 fastball pitch at 93 mph from Braves closer Will Smith and singled to deep center field. The walk-off led to a jubilant scene that contrasted last year’s opening day, which ended early with a Nationals loss. For starters, there were spectators in the ballpark.
An announced “sell-out” crowd of 4,801 fans, mostly wearing red and white, dotted the lower sections of Nationals Park. The D.C. government has allowed the Nationals to host 5,000 fans at each home game. Max Scherzer threw his first pitch at 4:06 p.m., and the temperature measured at 74 degrees with low humidity. Spring in D.C. doesn’t get much better.
Prior to the game, the Nationals presented Soto with his 2020 National League batting title trophy, and a season ticket holder raised the Nationals’ 2019 World Series championship flag near the center gate field. It was the first game since Game 5 of the 2019 World Series that the Nationals played in front of their fans at Nationals Park.
The players noticed the difference.
“It’s not necessarily the noise, but it’s the energy, people on their feet in big situations,” said Turner, who hit a two-run homer in the third inning to tie the game at 4-4. “So it was a lot of fun. I think that helps you when you’re down a little bit … We were behind early in the game, it’s nice to have them there. So when you do get a big hit, they kind of tell you where you’re at, you’re close to [getting] back in the game, and we kept fighting, and I think they’re a reason why we won this game.”
MLB originally scheduled the Nationals to play their opening game on April 1, but a COVID-19 outbreak in which eventually four Nationals players tested positive and seven more were deemed close contacts forced the team to postpone the game by nearly a week.
Players did not practice as a team until a few days before the game, and the unexpected time away can throw off the rhythm of a player as regimented as Scherzer. On his very first pitch of the game, Scherzer gave up a solo home run to Ronald Acuña Jr., who would hit another in the third inning. Freddie Freeman and Dansby Swanson also scored on solo home runs off Scherzer. In all, he threw six innings, struck out nine, and allowed five hits for a 6.00 ERA.
“I just wasn’t quite executing on full-tilt there early,” Scherzer said. “You gotta live with that, so you turn the page, move on. We got out of here with a win.”
With 11 players in insolation or quarantine, including the top two catchers on the Nationals depth chart, the team called up veteran Jonathan Lucroy, who signed a minor league contract with the team on April 3. Lucroy called Scherzer the day before the game to try to get on the same page.
“Obviously the first time you catch somebody it’s gonna be a little weird, you feel each other out,” Lucroy said. “It’s like a relationship, it’s like a marriage sometimes, working with pitchers, you gotta be able to talk to them and figure things out how you work. But he’s been successful for a long time doing what he does. And we got on a roll, we gave up some runs early, and we got on a roll there, I think the last three innings he threw and threw really well.”
For fans at Nationals Park like Chuck Fanslau, a 50-year-old musician from Northern Virginia, it didn’t really matter how the Nationals performed on Tuesday. He was just happy to be back in the ballpark. Fanslau owns around 40 Nationals jerseys and he tries to match what the players are wearing. On opening day, he was wearing a white Scherzer jersey, complete with an outfit that included a red-haired Nationals wig, red-and-white Argyle shorts with a curly W logo, knee-high red socks, and red-and-white Chucks.
Fanslau first put together the outfit (the jersey is the only item that changes) during the 2019 National League Championship Series where the Nationals swept the St. Louis Cardinals. He had not been back in the stadium since Game 5 of the World Series 17 months ago.
“The smells, the atmosphere of the ballpark. There’s so much you miss that you can’t pick one thing,” Fanslau said.