WASHINGTON — Opening day feels special because of the pomp and circumstance, from the flyovers to the massive American flag unfurled for the national anthem. Optimism abounds because each team begins with the same record.
The beginning of the baseball season also comes with the realization that the baseball gods do not care about any of that. Anything can happen – good or bad, fortunate or unfortunate.
The Braves opened the season with a taste of both.
The sweet: The Braves defeated the Nationals 7-2 on Thursday at Nationals Park. They are 1-0.
The sour: Max Fried, the Braves’ opening-day starter for the third consecutive season, departed early with left hamstring discomfort. His fourth-inning exit is the Braves’ first dose of adversity in the regular season. This sight – Fried leaving the mound with athletic trainer George Poulis – is a nightmare scenario for Braves fans.
When Fried left the game, the Braves led by three runs. They comfortably disposed of Nationals starter Patrick Corbin, whom they chased in the fourth inning. Despite a few miscues, and early missed opportunities with runners in scoring position, the Braves held a comfortable advantage.
But Fried’s exit muddies the afternoon – regardless of how serious, or not serious, the injury ends up being. The Braves hoped to see their starter take the mound and cruise. At the very least, they wanted Fried to be healthy when he completed his outing. Instead, this might be the first test of their depth, which should be a strength this season.
Thursday was the best and the worst outcome for the Braves.
The Braves handled Corbin, who entered opening day having gone 0-9 with a 7.17 ERA in his past 10 starts versus the Braves, with the Nationals losing all 10 games. This time, the Braves scored four runs off Corbin – two of them earned – as they forced him out in the fourth inning.
The season’s first RBI for the Braves belongs to Orlando Arcia, who hit a run-scoring single in a three-run second inning. (This was fitting after many fans questioned Arcia’s bat when the Braves decided to make him their starting shortstop.) Austin Riley then drew a bases-loaded walk before Ozzie Albies hit a soft grounder toward the shortstop that scored another run.
It all shaped up perfectly for the Braves.
Then came the bottom of the fourth, when Fried hurt his hamstring while covering first. After throwing a pitch, he pivoted back toward first base, got off the mound and ran to cover the bag. After he made the out at first, the broadcast cameras showed Fried grabbing his left hamstring. Perhaps Fried’s exit was precautionary, but it was a concern nonetheless because the Braves need him.
Over 3-1/3 innings, Fried allowed a run on four hits. Two of those hits came on balls that Fried’s defenders – Albies on one, Arcia on the other – lost in the sun. The Nationals scored their lone run on Fried on a sacrifice fly. The runner who scored reached because Arcia was battling the sun on a small pop-up, and Michael Harris’ throw from center field could’ve been better. (Harris’ throw hit the mound and bounced away.)
In the top of the fourth, before Fried’s injury, Sean Murphy grounded into a double play but a run scored. It gave the Braves a three-run lead.
All spring, we discussed the Braves’ talented and deep bullpen. The group features versatility. On Thursday, we received our first look at what it could do.
After Fried exited with a three-run lead …
— Lucas Luetge was charged with an earned run over one inning in his Braves debut.
— Jesse Chavez didn’t allow an earned run over 1-1/3 innings.
— Dylan Lee tossed two-thirds of an inning.
— Collin McHugh hurled 1-2/3 scoreless frames. In the eighth, he put the tying runs on base before escaping unscathed.
In the top of the ninth inning, Travis d’Arnaud, who collected four hits, laced a two-run double. He soon took third on a flyout and scored on a throwing error by the shortstop as he advanced to third.
The Braves, now up five runs, could breathe a sigh of relief. With Raisel Iglesias on the injured list, A.J. Minter received the first ninth-inning opportunity this season and closed the door on Washington.
On one hand, the Braves won on opening day.
On the other, they watched Fried depart, which, no matter the eventual seriousness, is a cause for concern that would suck some excitement out of any win.