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Yoenis Cespedes homers in return to lead Mets in Opening Day win over Braves

Mets designated hitter Yoenis Cespedes reacts as he

Mets designated hitter Yoenis Cespedes reacts as he scores on his solo home run against the Atlanta Braves during the seventh inning on Friday, July 24, 2020 at Citi Field Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

For as long as the Mets had to wait to play their first game of the season, nobody waited longer than Yoenis Cespedes. Nobody capitalized quite like him, either.

Returning to the majors after two years and four days, Cespedes homered in the Mets’ 1-0 win over the Braves on Friday, the greatest highlight of an all-around successful Opening Day that offered answers to a slew of lingering questions.

Yes, Cespedes can still hit, three surgeries removed from when he last played on July 20, 2018.

His rocket to leftfield — a loud crack of the bat elicited immediate and excited yells from the Mets’ dugout — against Atlanta reliever Chris Martin in the seventh inning broke the scoreless tie. The Mets went ahead as soon as Braves righthander Mike Soroka, who cruised through six innings on 69 pitches, exited.

“I don’t have words,” Cespedes said through an interpreter, “for a situation like that.”

Added Luis Rojas, who won his managerial debut, of the Mets’ reaction: “They erupted. They went crazy. Obviously, it’s a great moment for Ces. He’s been waiting to get healthy, get back into the lineup, get back to playing. Then he does that today.”

Or as Edwin Diaz put it: “He’s here to drop bombs, like we say. It’s super-important for him to do that.”

Yes, Diaz is still the Mets’ closer and the Mets’ bullpen indeed can hold a lead, at least for one day.

After Jacob deGrom’s five dominant innings (eight strikeouts, one hit, 72 pitches), Seth Lugo tossed two scoreless. Rojas’ eighth-inning plan shifted from Dellin Betances to Justin Wilson after Cespedes put the Mets ahead, and Wilson responded by stranding a runner on second.

Diaz worked around a walk to Freddie Freeman in the ninth, striking out Matt Adams — who requested and received his release from the Mets last weekend — to end it.

“That’s important for me. That’s what I’ve been looking for,” Diaz, who blew seven saves and had a 5.59 ERA last year, said through an interpreter. “That’s why I prepared in the offseason and both spring trainings that I had. I came in prepared. I came in calm. I had already looked at the scouting reports of the batters I was going to face. I was ready to go.”

And yes, baseball is back, mid-pandemic.

The reminders were constant. Citi Field was empty and desolately quiet, aside from the fake crowd noise pumped in via the public-address system. The only dancing in the stands was done by mascots Mr. and Mrs. Met. In the middle of the seventh, when “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” blared over the speakers, the video board in centerfield showed various shots of fans’ cardboard cutouts in the stands.

To allow for greater social distancing, the Mets extended the dugouts into the photographers’ well and built tents in the stands. That space went mostly unused.

After Cespedes rounded the bases, he was greeted by high-fives, fist bumps and pats on the butt and head from the two dozen or so Mets packed tightly into the dugout.

“We forgot about coronavirus and we were all super-excited at that moment,” Cespedes said. “Because of the way that I played and the moment that happened, we were just excited in that big moment.”

DeGrom, like other Mets pitchers recently, insisted that once he got on the mound, the game was the same. His goal was to get the batter out, even if there was no crowd off of which to feed. But the rest of the time?

Yes, deGrom allowed, this is weird.

“It felt different,” he said. “Even looking around, I feel like there was more interaction with guys in the batter’s box than normal. They’re looking at you, you got really nowhere else to look. That was a little different.”

That was especially true of Braves slugger Freeman, with whom deGrom has a playful rapport.

“We play to play in front of the fans,” deGrom said. “It was pretty close to the same Opening Day feel, but not quite.”

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