Makeshift Nationals Enjoy Dramatic Comeback Victory on Belated Opening Day

If you had Jonathan Lucroy driving in the first runs of the Nationals’ 2021 season, take your ticket to the window and claim your winnings. Due to a COVID-19 outbreak that forced the team to sideline nine players, the 34-year-old backstop, who was unemployed as of last week, suddenly became Max Scherzer’s batterymate for the Nationals’ season opener against the Braves. Things didn’t go well at the outset, but in his first major league plate appearance in about a year and a half, Lucroy helped the Nationals’ ace dig out of an early 3-0 hole with a two-run double.

In their first game in front of fans since winning the 2019 World Series — albeit just 4,801 fans, with Nationals Park only allowed to be filled to about 12% capacity — the Nationals completed a dramatic comeback via Juan Soto’s walk-off single in the ninth for a belated Opening Day win under very strange circumstances.

The situation was the culmination of a sequence of events that served to remind Major League Baseball that yes, there’s still a pandemic going on. Despite just 25 players out of a total of more than 2,000 testing positive for COVID-19 either on intake or during spring training, MLB made it exactly zero days into the regular season before having to deal with its first outbreak. The marquee Opening Day matchup between Scherzer and the Met’s Jacob deGrom was postponed after the test of a Washington player from Monday, the final day of spring training, came back positive. The remainder of the three-game series was scrubbed once the total number of positives climbed to four, with nine other players quarantined following contact tracing.

Exactly which players were affected remained rather murky and subject to speculation until Tuesday afternoon, when the Nationals released their roster prior to facing the Braves, a roster suitable for a split-squad spring training game:

Meanwhile, the team placed 10 players on the Injured List, namely reliever Will Harris due to inflammation in his left hand, and nine other players with no official explanation as to their absences, because teams aren’t allowed to share the name of a player who tests positive without that player’s consent. Here it’s also important to note that an absence doesn’t guarantee a positive test; a player might still be in quarantine if he was determined to have been in close contact with a player who tested positive. COVID-related stays on the IL have no minimum or maximum length of placement time.

The nine players sidelined include two members of the Nationals’ starting rotation (Patrick Corbin and Jon Lester), their closer (Brad Hand), both members of their catching tandem (Yan Gomes and Alex Avila), two other members of the starting lineup (first baseman Josh Bell and left fielder Kyle Schwarber), and two part-time infielders (Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer). It’s a set of absences that’s going to leave a mark, particularly given the steep fall-off in the rotation behind Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg so long as Corbin is out.

For as lengthy as the absentee list is, it might have been even longer. The availability of shortstop Trea Turner remained in doubt until Tuesday because he wasn’t visible to reporters during Monday’s workout. As manager Dave Martinez explained before Tuesday’s game, “He had to complete spit tests. He spit negative every test. We just couldn’t get him out there yesterday.”

The absences left general manger Mike Rizzo scrambling. The Nationals replaced most of the sidelined players with ones from their alternate training site: catcher Tres Barrera, infielders Luis García and Carter Kieboom, outfielders Yadiel Hernandez and Cody Wilson, lefty reliever Sam Clay, and righty relievers Ryne Harper and Kyle McGowin. All but Wilson were on the team’s 40-man roster. The only player added from outside the organization was Lucroy, whom the team signed to a minor-league deal on Saturday.

Lucroy’s career has gone downhill in recent years. Since being traded from the Brewers to the Rangers on August 1, 2016, the two-time All-Star and former MVP candidate has passed through the hands of seven other teams while hitting for just a 76 wRC+. His pitch framing, which once yielded a single-season record of 41.5 runs, deteriorated to the point that he was 16.5 runs below average in that category from 2017-19, and worth just 0.1 WAR overall. Last year, after undergoing surgery to alleviate a herniated disc that contributed to his slide, he made the briefest of cameos with the Red Sox, catching two innings on Opening Day and not even getting to bat. After Boston released him in mid-September, he signed with the Phillies, but didn’t play in a game.

Lucroy went to spring training with the White Sox, competing for the backup job behind Yasmani Grandal. He lost out to Zack Collins and overnight sensation Yermín Mercedes and was released on March 29, though he didn’t remain unemployed for long. On Monday, Martinez said that the veteran catcher had been studying video of Scherzer and doing his prep work on the Braves.

Despite the crash course, things did not go well initially for the Scherzer-Lucroy battery. Scherzer, who had last pitched in a March 27 B game, began his season with a 94 mph fastball at the top of the strike zone that was demolished by Ronald Acuña Jr., a 416-foot solo homer. After he struck out Ozzie Albies, Scherzer hung a curveball to Freddie Freeman, who swatted it for another homer. In the second inning, Scherzer left a 95 mph fastball in the middle of the zone for Dansby Swanson, who also homered, and in the third, Acuña crushed a slider for his second homer of the game.

It was just the third time in Scherzer’s career that he’s served up four homers in a game; he had done it previously on April 3, 2011, when the Yankees lit him up for four in the Bronx, and May 6, 2016, when the Cubs did so at Wrigley Field. Scherzer had only allowed three homers in a game once in the previous two seasons, that last August 16 against the Orioles in Camden Yards.

Down 3-0 after Swanson’s homer, the Nationals began clawing their way back when Hernán Pérez, playing second base with lefty Drew Smyly on the mound, hit a two-out single and Andrew Stevenson, filling in for Schwarber in left field, reached on an error by Albies. Lucroy fell behind 0-2, then bounced a double down the left field line. Both runners scored as left fielder Marcell Ozuna belatedly threw home, but Travis d’Arnaud’s throw back to back to Austin Riley at third beat him by several feet:

You could almost hear the record scratch and see the freeze frame, followed by Lucroy’s voiceover: “Yup, that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation…”

While the Braves answered Lucroy’s hit with Acuña’s second solo shot, the Nationals tied the game when Turner followed a one-out walk by Victor Robles with a two-run homer. Meanwhile, despite the plague of gophers, Scherzer hung tough, retiring 12 out of the next 13 batters, six via strikeouts. He finished with nine K’s in six innings, but the Braves reclaimed the lead in the seventh against reliever Kyle Finnegan. With one out, Riley and Cristian Pache both singled (the latter on a bunt), then pinch-hitter Pablo Sandoval walked to load the bases. Riley scored on an Acuña grounder to second, but reliever Wander Suero got Albies to ground out to limit the damage.

The Nationals loaded the bases for Turner with two outs in the seventh, but the shortstop could only manage a routine fly ball against reliever Josh Tomlin. They did re-tie the game in the eighth against A.J. Minter via one-out singles by Ryan Zimmerman (in his first game back after opting out last season) and Castro, a Pérez walk, and then an RBI single by Stevenson. Facing Will Smith in the ninth, Robles singled, advanced to second when Turner was hit by a pitch, and came home on Soto’s 115.3 mph scorcher up the middle, the hardest-hit ball of his career.

It was a storybook ending given the circumstances, and in addition to giving the Nationals an emotional first win, the game dropped the Braves to 0-4. As to where Washington goes from here, the team will make up Monday’s postponed game as part of a straight doubleheader on Wednesday, with Erick Fedde taking a spot start in place of Corbin opposite Huascar Ynoa in the opener and Strasburg facing off against Max Fried in the nightcap.

Beyond that, there’s no telling how quickly any of the absent Nationals will return, but hopefully, some portion of the players sidelined are merely being quarantined and can quickly rejoin the roster if they don’t develop COVID-19; on Wednesday morning, Martinez said they’re all testing negative so far. The big concern is that with long enough delays, Corbin and Lester, who both last pitched on March 28, might need to rebuild their pitch counts. Martinez hasn’t announced who will fill in for the latter, but with Joe Ross already part of the rotation, the best guess is Austin Voth, who lost out for a rotation spot but made the team as a long reliever. So long as Hand is out, the Nationals can use Daniel Hudson to close; after a rough 2020 season (6.10 ERA, 6.29 FIP, 2.6 HR/9), he pitched well in a scoreless ninth inning on Tuesday, striking out both Riley and Pache and getting Acuña to ground out after issuing a two-out walk.

With Gomes and Avila are out, Lucroy and Barrera will have their hands full with the makeshift pitching staff. The 26-year-old Barrera, a defense-first catcher known for his receiving skills and strong arm, spent most of 2019 at Double-A Harrisburg, where he hit .249/.323/.381 before getting a two-game cup of coffee with the Nationals in September. He missed all of last season due to an 80-game suspension after testing positive for Oral Turnabol, a banned substance; the suspension was later reduced to 60 games, but it probably cost him some major league service time.

Of the other players added to the roster, the going-on-21-year-old García and the 23-year-old Kieboom both received temporary reprieves from minor league assignments. Both saw substantial time with the team last year but struggled, and failed to convince the team this spring that they’d be better off in the majors rather getting more seasoning. García, whose path to the majors was accelerated by Starlin Castro’s season-ending right wrist fracture, hit just .276/.302/.366 in 139 PA and was crowded out of the middle infield by the return of Harrison and the arrivals of non-roster invitees Mercer and Pérez. Kieboom, who hit just .202/.344/.212 in 122 PA last year — he had exactly one extra-base hit, a double, in there — was expected to get the bulk of the playing time at third base this year, but after a dreadful showing this spring, he too was sent down as the team moved Castro to the hot corner, at least temporarily. Both are ticketed for part-time duty for as long as Harrison and Mercer are sidelined.

As the Cardinals and Marlins showed last year, it’s possible for a team to survive and even thrive in the wake of a COVID-19 outbreak, but with fewer playoff spots up for grabs and the NL East looking particularly competitive, the rejiggered Nationals have their work cut out for them, particularly for a team that was projected for just 81 wins. If they do make the playoffs after missing last season, they’ll look back fondly at Tuesday’s first step towards that goal.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Greg Simons

Whether the Nats are playoff-bound or not, it’s great that Soto, Turner, Scherzer, Strasburg, etc. are back on the field for their fans to cheer for them.