- - Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Before spring training began, Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez said he wanted his squad to get off to a good start for a change.

“I’ve emphasized all winter long trying to get out of the gate quick and staying on top,” Martinez said. “We’re going to focus on that and see if we can’t get out of the gate quicker than we have my first three years.”

He didn’t mention anything about doing it while his team was handcuffed by a COVID-19 outbreak.

But his team had the right medicine — the great Juan Soto, who hit the game-winning single in the bottom of the ninth inning to score Victor Robles for a 6-5 opening day Nationals win before a pandemic-restricted crowd of about 4,800 at Nationals Park.

That select group of fans got to watch the team raise its 2019 World Series championship banner.

Winning, even during that title year, never seems to come easily or simply for Martinez and his Nats. Remember, they started off 19-31 before coming back to win it all in 2019.

And on Tuesday, nearly one-fourth of the Nationals roster was sidelined with COVID-19 and protocol issues when the team finally took the field against the defending National League East champion Atlanta Braves — six days after the originally scheduled opener.

But they found a way to win, flashing the same toughness and grit they showed in 2019.

This team had dealt itself a bad hand before the first pitch ever happened, with multiple positive COVID-19 tests catching them by surprise hours before they were to face the New York Mets Thursday for their original opener.

Washington wound up postponing all three games with the Mets in that homestand, then had to postpone the first game scheduled for Monday against the Braves. 

And Martinez, who had hoped for a smooth start, preached what he preached two years before.

“We need to stay positive,” he said. “This isn’t the first time we’ve been through some bumpy roads. We’ve been there and we’re going to come back from this and we’re going to play baseball.”

You could make the case that this was a bumpy road of their own doing.

They appeared to have lost control of their COVID-19 containment on the trip from Florida to Washington for the start of the season. Every other Major League Baseball club managed to get from spring training to home without any damage — 29 of them.

“I’ve got the utmost confidence that it was not a player breaking protocol,” Rizzo told reporters. But something went wrong.

They went into Tuesday afternoon’s game against Atlanta without the services of first baseman Josh Bell, left fielder Kyle Schwarber, catchers Yan Gomes and Alex Avila, second baseman Josh Harrison, infielder Jordy Mercer and closer Brad Hand. Starting pitchers Patrick Corbin and Jon Lester were also sidelined.

Starting pitcher Max Scherzer was throwing to a catcher the team had just signed a few days ago off the street, veteran Jonathan Lucroy, and it looked like their worst fears would be realized, as Ronald Acuna blasted his first pitch for a solo home run and Freddy Freeman followed with another homer. Scherzer would give up four solo home runs in all, but settled down to keep the damage there, winding up with nine strikeouts and no walks in six innings pitched. And Lucroy got Washington on the board with a two-run double in the bottom of the second.

The Nationals, with four games already bagged due to COVID-19, found themselves 20 yards behind the starting line, playing catch up with a doubleheader against Atlanta scheduled the next day.

Now they’ll take some momentum into Wednesday’s two seven-inning games — that’s right, the seven-innings rule for doubleheaders from last year returns. It appears that the game may have forever lost some innings to the pandemic.

After the Braves, the Nationals hop on a plane to fly across the country for a three-game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the defending COVID season champs, followed by a trip to St. Louis to face the Cardinals.

Washington may be back to full strength by then, providing no other COVID-19 disasters pop up.

But they showed something to the rest of baseball and perhaps to themselves as well, on Tuesday.

Hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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