WASHINGTON — The coronavirus-shortened Major League Baseball season finally started amid the pandemic Thursday night with plenty of unusual elements: zero fans inside Nationals Park, umpires wearing masks that had nothing to do with protecting them from the ball, Washington star Juan Soto sidelined by COVID-19, and players from both the reigning World Series champions and the visiting New York Yankees kneeling together before the national anthem.
"It's hard to describe. That's 2020 in a nutshell," said Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle, who was supposed to catch Dr. Anthony Fauci's way-off-the-mark ceremonial first pitch. "Very emotional day. Very, very emotional day."
And there was plenty that actually made it all seem something resembling normal: Gerrit Cole's five terrific innings, big hits from Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge and a 4-1 storm-halted victory for the big-name Yankees over the Nationals.
It was one of only two games on opening night. Out in Los Angeles, the Dodgers rolled past the San Francisco Giants 8-1.
However, the evening started with the team that won the most recent title hosting the team that has won the most, though the Yankees' 27th crown came in 2009 and was only their second of the new century.
"It was a lot of fun. No one could have envisioned the type of year we're having this year, but within those parameters, it exceeded every mark," said Cole, who allowed only Adam Eaton's first-inning homer and joked about recording a complete game. "I just had a blast."
Max Scherzer, who struck out 11 batters but gave up all of New York's runs, chose to look at the bright side,: "I'd rather be playing baseball than not. That's the way I look at it. All the things we can get negative about and cry about, I'm just not going to do it."
What began as a muggy evening turned into a dark, windy downpour, replete with rumbles of thunder and flashes of lightning, prompting a delay in the top of the sixth inning. After waiting 1 hour, 58 minutes — 15 minutes more than were played — the game was called off and goes into the books as a win for New York.
Three-time Cy Young Award winner Scherzer (0-1) served up a two-run homer to 2017 National League MVP Stanton that traveled 459 feet in the first inning, an RBI double to 2017 American League Rookie of the Year Judge in the third and an RBI single to Stanton in the fifth.
Cole (1-0) looked every bit the player the Yankees hoped for when they signed him during the offseason as a free agent to a $324 million, nine-year contract, the largest deal for a pitcher. He was terrific other than Eaton's drive — the ball landed on one of the blue advertising tarps now stretching over unused seats at Nationals Park.
This was the official beginning of what is planned as a regular season with just 60 games for each team (instead of the customary 162), with, at least at the outset, no spectators (instead of the 40,000 or so that usually would be at opening day in D.C.), and with key rules changes.
Those include Thursday's agreement to expand the playoffs from 10 to 16 teams; using designated hitters in every game, not just at AL ballparks; and the gimmicky runner-on-second-base — already used in the minors — to start each extra half-inning.
In these most polarized of times in the United States, there certainly were those pleased and maybe relieved that one of the main North American team sports — the so-called national pastime — finally was back with real games at the top level.
"I found it easy to get locked into the game," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. "I had a lot of butterflies today coming to the ballpark and sorting through all the different things to get ready."
And there also were, to be sure, those wondering whether it's a good idea to play these games as the COVID-19 outbreak grows worse in parts of the country.
The pregame ceremony included nods to the Nationals' title and the Black Lives Matter movement — players from both teams jointly held a long black piece of cloth, then knelt in unison.
"There's a lot of injustice in this world and a lot of bad things going on, so we just wanted to show that we're aware of it," Judge said. "Start the conversation. Start the change."
The 266 days between the final game of the World Series — Scherzer started Game 7 for Washington against Cole's former team, the Houston Astros — and Thursday marked the longest gap between games since professional baseball leagues started in 1871.
"A long wait," Yankees shortstop Gleyber Torres said.
There all sorts sorts of protocols intended to keep folks safe, including a ban on players spitting, umpires wearing masks and frequent testing for the new coronavirus. Soto went on the special injured list for the illness Thursday after his positive result came back.
"It was a really harsh reminder how tenuous this situation is," Doolittle said about Soto.
Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman already was on that list. Two Nationals players who would have been on the roster — Ryan Zimmerman and Joe Ross — opted out of the season because of health-related concerns.
Even if the stadium was closed to the public, some folks did watch from balconies on at least one nearby high-rise building. Meanwhile, fake crowd noise was piped in through the stadium speakers, adding a bizarre element to an eerie atmosphere.
"It felt odd," Judge said. "It definitely felt odd."
After Friday's day off, the series resumes Saturday, with World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg pitching against New York's James Paxton. There is rain in the forecast.
LOS ANGELES — Mookie Betts singled in the seventh inning for his first hit as a Dodger, then signaled for the ball.
That, along with the lineup card, is headed for a display in his house.
"This is something I'll always remember," he said after scoring the go-ahead run in what turned into a rout of the Giants late. "It's just a new chapter in life."
Betts, traded in February by the Boston Red Sox, went 1-for-5 with two strikeouts a day after signing a $365 million contract covering 2021-32.
He spoke without his bat when he kneeled during the national anthem. Teammates Cody Bellinger and Max Muncy stood while each rested a hand on one of Betts' shoulders. Giants manager Gabe Kapler, in his first game as Bruce Bochy's successor, also kneeled.
"It was just unity," Betts said. "We're all on the same team, we're all here for change, even the Giants."
Betts' perspective on kneeling has changed since 2016, when he said he wouldn't take such action. His father, Willie, served in Vietnam with the U.S. Air Force.
"I wasn't educated, and that's my fault," Betts said. "I know my dad served and I'll never disrespect the flag, but there also has to be change. Kneeling is for the injustice."
Kiké Hernández homered and drove in five runs while tying his career high with four hits for Los Angeles.
"It's a great feeling," he said.
Justin Turner grounded into a fielder's choice, and Betts beat second baseman Donovan Solano's throw to the plate to give the Dodgers a 2-1 lead in the seventh. The Giants lost their video challenge of the call after Betts slid head-first.
"If that out is recorded at the plate, I think we're talking about a much different game," Kapler said.
Betts struck out with the bases loaded, ending a five-run inning that made it 6-1.
Adam Kolarek (1-0) got the victory with 1 2/3 innings of relief.
Dustin May became the first Dodgers rookie to start on opening day since Fernando Valenzuela in 1981 after Clayton Kershaw went on the injured list because of a back injury. It was similar to when Valenzuela was a late replacement for the injured Jerry Reuss back then.
May allowed one run and seven hits in 4 1/3 innings. The 6-foot-6 right-hander struck out four batters and walked none.
"It's the kind of thing you dream about, throwing on opening day," May said. "Once the first pitch was thrown I was all good and ready to get going."
May originally was not on the 30-man active roster, and the 22-year-old found himself pressed into duty after Kershaw's back stiffened during a weight room workout on Tuesday.
Pablo Sandoval's sacrifice fly scored San Francisco's lone run. Tyler Rogers (0-1) took the loss.