The blue seats were filled with waves of red jerseys at Nationals Park on Monday afternoon. Banners were unveiled, rosters introduced, awards accepted. New MLB commissioner Rob Manfred handed the ball to a child rather than deliver the ceremonial first pitch himself, as expected. The roar of two F/A-18F Super Hornet fighter jets followed a rendition of the National Anthem by the U.S. Army Chorus Quartet.
Opening Day isn’t Christmas, but for baseball fans, it might be even better. And at Nationals Park on Monday, it was a celebration in every way but one.
Against the New York Mets, the Washington Nationals began another season in which pundits and Las Vegas bettors have picked them to win the World Series. Marquee free agent Max Scherzer didn’t allow an earned run in 7 2/3 sparkling innings. Bryce Harper rocketed a fastball to right-center field for a home run.
All was well — until it wasn’t.
The Nationals lost on Opening Day, 3-1, and in the afternoon’s result was another reminder that this game, despite the pageantry surrounding it, is worth as much in the standings as any other.
“To be part of it is a pretty special deal, regardless of where you’re at and where you’re playing,” manager Matt Williams said. “The more Opening Days you’re a part of, the better player you are and the more opportunities you have. So, if you look at it that way, then it’s a great day. We would’ve liked to have won this one. But we didn’t, and we’ll go on.”
The afternoon began with a lengthy pregame ceremony that lasted more than 50 minutes, featuring lineup introductions, award ceremonies and a number of other season-opening formalities, all emceed by sports broadcaster James Brown. The Nationals were awarded the 2018 All-Star Game before first pitch, and signs in left and left-center field were unveiled to commemorate the occasion. The festivities are a treat for fans and a menace for players, who simply want to establish their usual pregame routines.
“It’s more a pain, to be honest with you,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said with a grin before the game. “I shouldn’t say that. It’s an exciting day. It’s just, you have to treat it just like any other day.”
Through five innings, that held true for the Nationals. Classic storylines began to take shape. Harper pumped his fist as he rounded first base, his home run having just landed above the out-of-town scoreboard in right-center field, and Scherzer had yet to allow a hit. The buzz in the seats that had been evident all day continued to grow.
That feeling changed when, in the sixth, Curtis Granderson drew a two-out walk and David Wright hit a pop fly to shallow center field. Second baseman Dan Uggla camped under it while shortstop Ian Desmond raced over from his side of the diamond, unwisely calling off Uggla. The ball fell harmlessly to the grass, and Lucas Duda singled in the next at-bat to put the Mets ahead, 2-1.
“That was pretty embarrassing,” Desmond said of the error. “I felt like one of those Little Leaguers.”
Desmond committed two errors in the game, the Nationals went 0-for-4 with runners in scoring position and Scherzer’s excellent debut went to waste. The loss put a slight damper on the excitement of Opening Day, but the Nationals immediately turned their focus to Game 2.
“Any time you lose a ballgame, you always get back and look at what you could do better,” Scherzer said. “Even for myself, even though I threw the ball well, there’s still things I can improve upon. I did make some mistakes out there where I left some pitches in the middle of the zone. As we keep getting deeper into the season, hopefully I can continue to execute pitches at a high level throughout.”
The Nationals are celebrating their 10th anniversary this season, and before the game, Zimmerman was asked if he’s reflected on how far the franchise has come. An Opening Day lineup that once featured Vinny Castilla and Terrmel Sledge instead included Harper, one of baseball’s most electric stars, and Scherzer, the highest-paid right-hander in the history of the sport.
Zimmerman heard the question and paused for a moment before shaking his head. It’s as easy to reflect on Opening Day as it is to dwell on it, to treat the season-opener as a momentous occasion rather than what it is at its core: One day’s work in a season filled with 162 of them.
“You’ve got to play the first game before you play them all,” Zimmerman said. “It’s a fun day, but at the end of the day, honestly, it’s just another game.”