Phillies lose lead, then beat Braves in 10th on a memorable opening day with fans in the stands
PHILADELPHIA – There was pomp, circumstance and about 8,500 socially distanced and masked fans bundled up against the wind and cold at Citizens Bank Park on Thursday.
For the Phillies, it represented the first time playing in front of fans since Sept. 29, 2019, the home finale that season. Six months later, the coronavirus pandemic caused a four-month delay to the start of the 2020 season, which was played without fans.
So it was a welcomed sight, even if it was a much smaller crowd than a typical opening day sellout of around 45,000. Capacity for outdoor venues in Philadelphia is capped at 20%.
But they sure weren't quiet.
"Eighty-eight hundred people can make a lot of noise in a ballpark that seats about 44,000, and they’re kind of spread out," Phillies manager Joe Girardi said. "It was great. It was great to see. It was great to hear."
And it was mostly appreciation for having the chance to be seen and heard again.
"It’s so much better," starting pitcher Aaron Nola said about having fans. "It’s how it should be. I can’t wait until there will be more soon … This is way better. That’s what we’re used to."
There was little booing, and that didn't come until late in the game, when Nola surrendered a game-tying two-run homer to pinch-hitter Pablo Sandoval with two outs in the seventh inning.
"A bad pitch," Nola said about the 0-and-2 curveball that Sandoval deposited into the second deck in right field, tying the game at 2.
In many ways, the Phillies have seen that happen too often in recent years. They haven't had a winning season since 2011, the last time they made the playoffs.
But this is a new season with new hope and the Phillies found a way to win as Jean Segura's single in the 10th inning brought home Bryce Harper, for a 3-2 win over the Braves, the NL East champs each of the last two seasons.
And the throaty fans showed that hope through much of the game. The Phillies felt that, too.
"I’ve been through a number of opening days," Girardi said. "They’re always exciting. There’s always butterflies. You really look forward to it. But I feel like this one is different … because we didn’t have fans last year. It just has a completely different feeling.
"And as the season progresses, we’re allowed more and more fans and it really gets back to normal. … It’s just going to feel like we’re getting our lives back somewhat."
Baby steps, of course.
The smattering of fans in the right-field stands cheered wildly when Harper took his position in right field as the game was beginning, and Harper bowed to them, as he has in the past.
And the fans kept it going when Nola retired the side in the first inning on only nine pitches.
They roared when the Phillies took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first after Andrew McCutchen beat the tag at home on Alec Bohm's sacrifice fly.
The Phillies added a run in the second on J.T. Realmuto's RBI single. Realmuto signed a five-year contract extension worth $115.5 million in January, the highest average annual contract for a catcher.
It came much to the delight of the fans, a sign that the Phillies were committed to contending in the NL East.
And Nola was cruising through the Braves' lineup. He was making his fourth straight opening day start, the most consecutive since Steve Carlton started 10 straight in the 1970s.
Nola ran into some trouble in the sixth after an error by first baseman Rhys Hoskins, who made a bad toss to Nola scrambling to cover first. That put Braves on second and third with one out.
Then Bohm, who's listed at 6-5, leaped to snare a line drive by Marcell Ozuna that would have tied the game for the second out. Nola struck out Travis d'Arnaud to end the inning.
Nola pumped his fist as he walked off the mound.
"If he’s not that tall, I don’t think he’d be able to catch it," Nola said. "He saved a run or two right there."
It didn't last. Nola got the first two outs in the seventh, then gave up a single to Cristian Pache, the No. 8 hitter in the Braves' lineup. That brought up Sandoval, the pinch hitter, who promptly tied the game.
Just like that, the somewhat subdued euphoria from the crowd faded. That was in part because of the lost lead, and in part because of the cold from the unending 20-or-so-mph winds. That made the game-time temperature of 49 degrees at the start of the game seem much colder.
So they played on into extra innings.
Under a rule instituted last season, a runner is placed at second to start the inning. The Braves couldn't do anything with their chance in the top of the 10th, thanks to center fielder Roman Quinn, who threw out Ozzie Albies trying to score on a sacrifice fly.
With Harper at second in the bottom of the 10th, Realmuto moved him over to third on a groundout. One out later, Segura hit a bouncer over third baseman Austin Riley and Harper scampered home.
The players came out to congratulate Segura, but he kept running into center field. Finally, he slid and was mobbed by his teammates.
"It was kind of funny," Segura said with a laugh.
All the while, fans yelled their approval, then headed to the exits. It was the first game of 162, and there were fans in the stands. At that point, through a devastating pandemic, everything seemed normal again.
Contact Martin Frank at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @Mfranknfl.