After a week in which the focus for the Washington Nationals surrounded the four positive coronavirus cases among players that left the team short-handed entering an opener delayed five days, the emotions seemed to pour out at second base.
That’s where Juan Soto’s teammates met him, after the right fielder throttled a walk-off single into center field, scoring Victor Robles from second to secure the Nationals’ 6-5 victory against the Atlanta Braves. That’s where Soto had water bottles dumped on him in a mosh pit of jumping, opening the 2021 season with a win despite a rocky first few innings — and first few days.
Even without nine regular players due to the coronavirus and subsequent contact-tracing quarantines, Washington’s biggest star came through when needed. Robles and Trea Turner reached base in the bottom of the ninth inning, giving Soto the platform. He didn’t think twice about swinging at the 3-0 fastball Atlanta reliever Will Smith tried to groove in.
“I’m swinging every time,” Soto said of 3-0 counts. “I know he’s going to come with a fastball.”
“I would have been real upset if he would’ve taken a 3-0 strike,” manager Dave Martinez said.
Soto’s clutch knock — the first walk-off of his career — capped a come-from-behind outing in which starting pitcher Max Scherzer struggled to find his rhythm before settling in.
Scherzer’s propensity for allowing the longball has cropped up on previous opening days. He gave up first-inning dingers in 2020, 2019 and 2016, too, and his four solo shots Tuesday put the Nationals in a hole.
The homers didn’t come off pitcher’s pitches, either. Scherzer left his first pitch of the game — a 94-mph fastball — in Ronald Acuna Jr.’s sweet spot. The outfielder crushed the high heater, watching the ball fly out of the park, an inauspicious start to the 2021 campaign. Two batters later, Freddie Freeman sent a hanging curveball into the second deck in right field.
And in the second and third innings, Dansby Swanson and Acuna added onto the Braves’ lead, blasting a fastball and slider left over the middle, respectively. It was a continuation of Scherzer’s home run problem that made itself especially pronounced in 2020, when he allowed a career-high 1.3 longballs per nine innings.
“I was executing pitches, and then I’d get sloppy and leave one over the middle of the plate,” Scherzer said. “Just wasn’t quite executing full tilt there early. You’ve got to live with that. So you turn the page and move on.”
So he did. After allowing a second dinger to Acuna, Scherzer retired 12 of the next 13 batters he faced, with his secondary pitches proving more effective. He struck out Swanson on a changeup in the fourth, then followed with a punchout of Austin Riley on a slider. Scherzer struck out six hitters in that stretch, posting scoreless innings in the fourth, fifth and sixth.
That turnaround from Scherzer followed an offensive breakthrough from Washington that perhaps best displayed the unusual circumstances the club is dealing with. With four players testing positive for the coronavirus and a score of others in quarantine as close contacts, Martinez relied on his depth.
There was Hernan Perez, who made the team as a utility bench piece, knocking the Nationals’ first hit of the game. Andrew Stevenson, another bench option who was thrust into a starting role, reached on a hard-hit error. And then Jonathan Lucroy — who was catching Scherzer on Lucroy’s first day with the team — sent a two-run double down the left field line.
Later, Turner tied the game in the third with a two-run blast into the visitor’s bullpen. That production allowed Scherzer to exit after six innings with a no decision, recovering from what seemed to be a disastrous outing early. He allowed five hits — four of which were homers — and struck out nine on 91 pitches.
“He gave up the homers, but solo homers aren’t that bad in the grand scheme of things,” Turner said. “You can kind of live with them. He was striking people out; he was competing like he always does.”
The Braves and Nationals traded a pair of runs in the later frames, with Stevenson coming through with an infield single to bring home the game-tying tally for Washington in the eighth.
That set the stage for Soto in the ninth, with two runners on and no outs. And when he saw that 3-0 fastball in the zone, Soto didn’t hesitate, smacking the pitch into center field for a walk-off win and allowing a week of uncertainty to give way to celebrations at second base.
“Just joy,” Turner said. “Being back is fun. Playing is fun. Winning is fun.”