Dodgers beat Nationals in home opener filled with tributes and celebrations

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Jorge Castillo
·5 min read
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The Dodgers' Justin Turner connects for a solo homer in the sixth inning against the Nationals on April 9, 2021.
Justin Turner homers in the sixth inning during the Dodgers' 1-0 victory over the Washington Nationals in the team's home opener Friday. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

A full-throated roar 548 days in the making boomed through Dodger Stadium at 11:45 a.m. Friday. The cardboard cutouts were gone, replaced by 15,036 humans in Dodger blue eager to celebrate a championship and simply watch their beloved team in person after a season apart amid a pandemic. The Dodgers treated them to a show.

A day that began with an emotional ring ceremony and a tribute to Tommy Lasorda featuring his daughter Laura ended in a crisp 1-0 win over the Washington Nationals on the backs of Walker Buehler and Justin Turner.

Buehler added another chapter to his big-stage résumé, tossing six scoreless innings in his second start of the season. Turner went three for three with the difference-making solo home run in his first game at home since re-signing in February. And in the end, Corey Knebel, not Kenley Jansen, was summoned to pitch the ninth inning. He struck out the side for his second save of the season as the Dodgers improved to 6-2.

“It was great to have fans back in Dodger Stadium, hearing the roar of crowd,” Turner said. “It was nice to be home.”

Friday was a clash between the previous two World Series champions and, coincidentally, the first game at Dodger Stadium with fans in attendance since Oct. 9, 2019, the day the Nationals knocked them out of the 2019 postseason with an upset in Game 5 of the National League Division en route to winning the World Series.

That was the night of Clayton Kershaw’s last playoff failure. The night Joe Kelly surrendered a back-breaking grand slam to Howie Kendrick. The night the Dodgers, after winning a franchise-record 106 games, had their World Series drought extended to 31 seasons.

“When you don’t win the last game of the season and you’re to blame, it’s not fun,” Kershaw said after he gave up back-to-back home runs to Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon out of the bullpen. “Everything people say is true right now about the postseason. I understand that. Nothing I can do about it right now. It’s a terrible feeling, it really is.”

Over the next 16 months, Dodger Stadium served as a COVID-19 testing site, a voting place, and a COVID-19 vaccination center. It hosted a summer camp, 30 regular-season games, and two playoff games. Rendon signed with the Angels, Kendrick retired, and, last October, in a Dallas suburb, the Dodgers’ championship drought ended.

Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw shows off his 2020 World Series ring during a pregame ceremony.
Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw shows off his 2020 World Series ring during a pregame ceremony at Dodger Stadium on Friday. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Kershaw, as a result, radiated a different energy Friday. He doffed his cap to his family sitting in the loge level behind home plate moments before the ring ceremony began. He raised his fist in the air in their direction when his name was announced — after an introduction from Will Clark, Dodger nemesis and Kershaw’s favorite player growing up in Dallas. He then absorbed the loudest of the ceremony’s ovations.

“That was awesome,” Turner said. “From the dugout, I couldn’t really tell, but it looked like he was getting a little emotional, which he should, so happy for him. That’s why I kept my glasses on, I didn’t want to let anyone see me getting emotional underneath there.”

A pitcher’s duel between Buehler and Joe Ross surfaced once the game started. The right-handers alternated scoreless frames until Ross, making his first start since 2019, was pulled.

Dodgers starter Walker Buehler delivers a pitch against the Nationals on April 9, 2021.
Dodgers starter Walker Buehler gave up six hits, struck out four and walked none in six scoreless innings Friday. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers right fielder Zach McKinstry tumbles over the wall after missing a second-inning foul ball.
Dodgers right fielder Zach McKinstry tumbles over the wall after missing a second-inning foul ball hit by Washington Nationals left fielder Andrew Stevenson. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Ross held the Dodgers to two hits — both from Turner — and two walks over his five innings. Buehler, meanwhile, yielded six hits with four strikeouts and no walks. He threw 90 pitches, 66 for strikes, before he was relieved by Victor González.

“I want to strike guys out, but any time there’s zeros up there, I’m pretty pleased,” Buehler said. “I feel pretty good about it on the whole.”

The Dodgers finally supplied run support in the sixth inning. Former Dodger Luis Avilan struck out the first two batters he faced in before he threw a 1-0 changeup to Turner that leaked out over the plate. Turner capitalized, launching the pitch 412 feet for his second home run of the season — the most he’s ever hit before May.

“All that went into this past winter, the uncertainties,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, “for him to come back here and homer in the home opener when we got our rings was very fitting.”

The Nationals (1-3) had their best chance to score in the eighth inning when they put runners on the corners with no outs against Blake Treinen. The rally quickly evaporated. Will Smith threw out Victor Robles trying to steal second. Trea Turner struck out swinging. Ryan Zimmerman, after Soto was intentionally walked, grounded out to end the inning.

Nursing a one-run lead, Roberts chose Knebel over Jansen for the final three outs. After the game, Roberts said Jansen, who blew a save Wednesday against the Oakland Athletics, wasn’t available because he would’ve pitched for the third time in four days.

Knebel, meanwhile, has retired 10 of 11 batters with six strikeouts this season. Asked if Knebel is atop his list to close games, Roberts sidestepped the question.

“I think we’re just in a really good spot,” Roberts said after a long pause. “Whether it’s Victor for a certain run, Corey or Blake. I feel good about any one of those guys outside of Kenley.”

So, like he did 18 months ago, Jansen watched a teammate pitch the ninth inning against the Nationals from the bullpen. Not much else was the same. This time, the Dodgers are the defending World Series champions. An October cloud no longer hangs over them. They had to wait until Friday to celebrate with fans at Dodger Stadium, and they didn’t disappoint.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.