WASHINGTON — Could there have been a more fitting start to the 2020 Major League Baseball season?
The Yankees and Nationals, expected World Series contenders led by two of the top pitchers of this generation, kicked off an MLB season unlike any other Thursday night at Nationals Park.
And what on the surface started as simply an odd night became an increasingly bizarre one. After a violent thunderstorm halted play for nearly two hours, the game was called in the top of the sixth inning and the Yankees took a rain-shortened 4-1 victory to kick off an unprecedented 60-game regular season.
It made a winner out of Gerrit Cole in his Yankees debut and featured an offense led by two sluggers who have struggled to stay on the field recently — Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton.
Cole was terrific, allowing one run, one hit and a walk and striking out five in five innings.
“I said to Amy [his wife], ‘I can’t believe I’m going to get a complete game one-hitter in my debut,' ” Cole said with a laugh afterward.
Max Scherzer, who beat Cole in Game 1 of last year’s World Series when the latter was with Houston, had dominant enough stuff to strike out 11 in 5 1/3 innings. But he allowed four runs, six hits and four walks, and the Yankees had two on with one out in the sixth against him when the storm hit.
“Our guys came out with an edge, and you could sense that in the dugout,” Aaron Boone said.
Stanton hit a two-run homer in the first, Judge had an RBI double in the third and Stanton added an RBI single in the fifth.
"Today I feel like we were locked in,'' Stanton said. "You have to be ready to go home or away, full crowd or not."
“It’s about as good as you could draw it up starting the game out that way,” Boone said of the Stanton blast, which was preceded two batters earlier by the first of Judge’s two hits. “That’s a huge shot in the arm when you’re facing another team’s ace and you’ve got your ace on the mound.”
And the Yankees’ ace was, as expected, dialed in.
Through five innings, Cole was doing exactly what managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner had in mind when he OK’d what was — and is — a record-setting nine-year, $324 million contract in December.
Boone said if the delay had been “really quick” and the game had continued, he would have brought Cole back out. If it had resumed after two-plus hours, Boone said he likely would have brought in Adam Ottavino.
“He settled into a nice groove,” Boone said of Cole, who allowed a first-inning homer by Adam Eaton that made it 2-1 and marked the first and only hit of the night for the Nationals.
The night in some ways defied description.
Teams lining up — at an appropriate social distance that extended the player lines almost to each foul pole — before first pitch for introductions in front of no fans. A pre-recorded national anthem. Crowd noise piped in. The world’s most famous immunologist, lifelong Yankees fan Dr. Anthony Fauci, throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. The home team running onto the field accompanied not by a roaring crowd but by ballpark music at a moderate decibel level.
"It felt odd,'' Judge said of the fan-less game. "Good to have real baseball back but definitely odd."
Somehow, after starting spring training three weeks ago with the virus mostly unchecked throughout the country, the sport managed to get to Opening Day, the virus still very much unchecked.
Boone spent the weeks leading up to Thursday talking confidently about how his team was handling the pandemic, specifically the rigidity of the 100-page-plus operations manual designed to keep COVID-19 from running rampant throughout big-league clubhouses.
Then they came out with the “edge” the manager referenced.
Judge, who homered off Scherzer in the second inning of the 2018 All-Star Game at Nationals Park, singled sharply to left with one out in the first for the Yankees’ initial hit of the 2020 regular season. Gleyber Torres’ groundout moved Judge into scoring position and Stanton followed by destroying a 96-mph fastball to left-center for a 459-foot two-run homer that made it 2-0.
Said Judge, "That was huge for us, kind of set the tone for the whole game. Pretty awesome. I had a pretty good view at second."
The Yankees' dugout at that point generated the only sound in the ballpark, an island of noise in a sea of silence.
“The crescendo for the big pitch or big swing or the drop in energy in the stadium if the opposing team has success,” Cole said.
He smiled and added, "It would have been that quiet even if there were fans when Giancarlo hit that home run.”