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It finally happened. On Tuesday, April 6, the Washington Nationals played in front of their fans at Nationals Park for the first time since Game 5 of the 2019 World Series. That’s a span of 17 months and 10 days. Or, to break it down even further, 527 days. For many reasons, some related to baseball and some totally disconnected from sports, it’s felt much longer than that. A World Series victory parade, a major cheating scandal, a drastically shortened season, and an unexpectedly postponed opening day have all unfolded in the past year and a half—on top of an ongoing global pandemic. It’d be easy to forget exactly how the Nationals got here, so let’s take a moment to reflect on the surreal, winding, and very bumpy road they took.
Hugs. So many hugs. Remember those? Nationals fans everywhere turned to one another in unrestrained delight on the night of Oct. 30, 2019. The Nationals, the scrappy team that started the 2019 MLB season with a 19-31 record, beat the Houston Astros 6-2 in Game 7 to win the World Series for the first time in franchise history. Three days later, the Nationals rode through the streets of downtown D.C. as champions. It was the second victory parade in two years for D.C. sports fans, after the Capitals won the Stanley Cup the year prior. A third parade, for the 2019 WNBA champion Washington Mystics, would be postponed and eventually canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
At one point during the Nationals’ teamwide virtual reunion on April 14, 2020, Brian Dozier took off his shirt and started hitting the sides of a trash can he plopped on his head. It was a direct reference to the Houston Astros’ cheating scandal that dominated the sports world prior to the 2020 MLB season. The Athletic published a story on Nov. 12, 2019 alleging the Astros, the 2017 World Series champions and 2019 runners-up, had been illegally stealing signs from their opponents in 2017 through an elaborate system that involved electronic equipment and communication in the form of loud noises, specifically banging on a trash can. Opposing players had long been suspicious of the Astros, but the controversy didn’t become public until The Athletic’s report. In January 2020, after concluding its investigations, MLB fined the Astros $5 million and stripped the team of four draft picks. A subsequent article in the Washington Post detailed the lengths that teams like the Nationals went to thwart the Astros’ efforts to steal signs.
No one knew it at the time, but a much larger story than sign-stealing loomed on the horizon. On March 11, 2020, the NBA suspended its season after a player tested positive for COVID-19. The rest of the sports world soon followed, and the following day, MLB canceled the remainder of its spring training and delayed the regular season. Nationals players returned home from their spring training facility in West Palm Beach, Florida, which they shared with the Houston Astros, and waited for the green light. Weeks, then months passed. Negotiations between MLB and the players’ union stalled and at points, it appeared the season might be in danger of being completely scrapped. Eventually, on June 23, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred announced a 60-game season that teams played in empty stadiums.
July 23, 2020. Opening day for the defending World Series champions. It should’ve been a triumphant moment for the franchise. Instead, an eerie silence of an empty ballpark along with the occasional artificial crowd noise greeted the Nationals. The team would go on to lose to the New York Yankees, 4-1, in a rain-shortened game that was called with one out in the sixth inning. Just hours before first pitch that Thursday, Nationals superstar Juan Soto tested positive for COVID-19. He would miss opening day and ended up sitting out the first eight games of the abbreviated season. Soto has since said that he had a false positive after receiving back-to-back lab-confirmed negative tests. Two days later, World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg was scratched for his first start of the season because of a nerve issue in his right hand. Soon after, COVID-19 outbreaks within the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals organizations delayed more than a dozen games just two weeks into the season as MLB elected not to play in a “bubble” like the NBA or NHL.
Offseason of Change
The Nationals finished its season on Sept. 27, 2020 with a 15-5 win over the New York Mets at Nationals Park. The team made it through the pandemic-shortened season without any COVID-19 outbreaks, but the unpredictable nature of pandemic clearly impacted the players’ energy. Washington finished at the bottom of the National League East division and missed the playoffs. A month earlier, Strasburg underwent surgery for carpal tunnel neuritis in his right hand, which ended his season. The magic of the 2019 World Series title had faded, and popular players like Howie Kendrick and Sean Doolittle knew their time with the team was coming to an end. Kendrick would announce his retirement by the end of the year, and Doolittle has since signed with the Cincinnati Reds. Soto was one of the few bright spots in a dreary year: At 21, he became the youngest player to win the National League batting title since 1900.
Hope Springs Eternal
Nationals general manager and president Mike Rizzo welcomed plenty of new faces to the team during the offseason. The Nats overhauled their coaching staff and player roster. In January, the team signed outfielder Kyle Schwarber, a 2016 World Series champion with the Chicago Cubs, to a one-year deal. That was followed by the signings of All-Star first baseman Josh Bell and All-Star pitchers Brad Hand and Jon Lester, among others. The strength of the Nationals remains its starting rotation and the addition of Lester to a team that already stars Strasburg, Max Scherzer, and Patrick Corbin gives the Nats a chance to contend in the NL East. And just a few weeks before the scheduled opening day, the D.C. government approved the team to host 5,000 fans at Nationals Park. The Nationals went through spring training in West Palm Beach, Florida, without any positive COVID-19 tests. A joyous opening day game—and a sense of normalcy—appeared imminent.
Try, Try Again
Not so fast. On the eve of opening day, Rizzo told reporters that a player on the team had tested positive for COVID-19, and five people (four players and one staff member) were deemed to be in close contact and forced to quarantine. Rizzo maintained that he believed the long-awaited opening day game would go on as planned, but the team officially postponed the game just hours before first pitch. The numbers of impacted individuals on the team eventually ballooned to four players who tested positive for COVID-19 and seven players and two staff members deemed to be in close contact. In all, the team had to postpone four games before the April 6 opening day game against the Atlanta Braves. Scherzer threw the first pitch at 4:06 p.m. in front of an announced “sold-out” crowd of 4,801 fans on a sunny spring afternoon in D.C. With the game tied, 5-5, at the bottom of the ninth inning, Soto did what megastars like him do. He hit an RBI single for a 6-5 walk-off Nationals’ victory. The fans roared. No artificial crowd noise needed.