Defending champions the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees on Thursday suffered opening defeats as the MLB season began under the shadow of COVID-19.
Just over a year after the pandemic plunged the US’ pastime into chaos, forcing a four-month shutdown and leading to an abbreviated 60-game regular season, fans returned to ballparks across the nation for the start of a 162-game marathon, but the specter of COVID-19 served up a reminder of the challenges facing the new season, with the Washington Nationals opener against the New York Mets postponed for safety reasons.
The game was scratched after confirmation on Wednesday that a Nationals player had tested positive, and that four other players and a member of staff were in isolation after contact tracing.
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“We’re still in the midst of a pandemic,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez told the Washington Post. “People need to still take this seriously. Unfortunately, it hit us. All I can say is, be safe. Continue to wear your mask. Know that this can still happen to anyone.”
While last year’s pandemic-shortened regular season took place with no fans in stadiums, spectators were allowed back on Thursday, though most venues operated at reduced capacity.
In New York, the 54,000-seat Yankee Stadium hosted about 11,000 fans for an eagerly awaited season-opener with the Toronto Blue Jays, who themselves have been forced to play home games in Florida this season due to ongoing travel restrictions between the US and Canada.
Fans in New York were required to provide proof of either full vaccination or a negative test within the previous 72 hours before being allowed entry. Their temperature was also checked at the turnstiles.
Not even steady drizzle throughout the morning could dampen the mood amongst fans in a city that was one of the worst-hit in the US by COVID-19, with more than 49,000 fatalities.
“It could be snowing, I’d still come. It could be the hottest day in summer, I’d still come,” 26-year-old Jose Villeneuve said. “This is the first step for me mentally to think that we’re getting back to normal, that things are looking good.”
However, the Yankees were unable to send their loyal supporters home with a season-opening win.
The Bronx Bombers, one of the favorites to reach the World Series from the American League, suffered a 3-2 loss in extra innings.
Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez blasted a two-run homer off Blue Jays ace Ryu Hyun-jin to put the hosts 2-1 ahead, but Teoscar Hernandez homered to tie it up for Toronto in the sixth, before Randal Grichuk’s double brought home Jonathan Davis in the 10th.
In Denver, Colorado, reigning champions the Dodgers were downed 8-5 by the Colorado Rockies in their National League West clash.
The Dodgers took the lead in bizarre circumstances, when Cody Bellinger bludgeoned a fly ball to left field that bounced out of Raimel Tapia’s glove and over the wall.
However, what appeared to be a straight forward two-run homer was downgraded to a single after Dodgers veteran Justin Turner — who had been on first base — mistakenly backtracked thinking Tapia had made the catch.
Despite Bellinger signaling that the ball had gone over the fence, Turner passed his teammate on the way back to first base.
That meant Bellinger was ruled out. Turner subsequently jogged around the bases to give the Dodgers a 1-0 lead.
The Rockies then made the Dodgers pay for the error in the bottom of the inning, with Garrett Hampson singling on a bunt to bring Chris Owings home. Josh Fuentes then singled on a ground ball to score Hampson for a 2-1 lead.
The Rockies moved into a 4-2 lead in the bottom of the fifth with runs from Owings and Hampson.
The Dodgers tied it in the sixth after loading the bases with no outs, Turner’s sacrifice fly allowing Kershaw to make it 4-3, before Max Muncy’s single allowed Mookie Betts to make it home.
However, the Rockies pulled away with four more runs — including two from wild pitches by Dodgers reliever Jimmy Nelson — to set up the win.
Elsewhere, the Padres edged the Diamondbacks 8-7, the Tigers tamed the Indians 3-2, the Pirates sank the Cubs 5-3, the Cardinals crushed the Reds 11-6 and the Royals outscored the Rangers 14-10.
The Rays blanked the Marlins 1-0, the Angels edged the White Sox 4-3, the Astros thrashed the Athletics 8-1, the Brewers tamed the Twins 6-5, the Phillies beat the Braves 3-2 and the Mariners sank the Giants 8-7.
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