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New Mets' DH Cespedes makes history on opening day

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Los Angeles (AFP)

Yoenis Cespedes took advantage of a new designated hitter rule to blast his first home run in his long-awaited return and lift the New York Mets to a 1-0 opening day win over the Atlanta Braves.

Cespedes' solo shot in the seventh inning off reliever Chris Martin on Friday was his first homer since his last game in the majors on July 20, 2018.

"Being able to hit a home run after being out for two years, it proved to me that I can still be the same player that I used to be," he said.

Friday's Mets opener kicked off the first full slate of games in the much-anticipated return to baseball after months of uncertainty during the coronavirus shutdown that at times threatened to scuttle the entire season. The Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers hosted their first games of the season on Thursday.

Among the changes to American baseball this year is the addition of the designated hitter to the National League for the first time, and a runner being placed on second base to begin the 10th inning of games that go into extra innings.

In Chicago's Wrigley Field, the players from the Cubs and the Milwaukee Brewers took part in a pre-game ceremony, standing during the American anthem and holding up a black fabric in honour of Black Lives Matter.

The United States has been wracked by nationwide protests against racism and police brutality after the May 25 death of African-American George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police officers.

Taking a knee has become a symbol of support for Black Lives Matter, adopted by demonstrators and American athletes in the weeks since the protests erupted.

And because of the pandemic raging across American cities and towns at the same time, Friday's contests took place in eerily empty ballparks. Some of the players wore protective masks on the field and Seattle Mariners' Mallex Smith batted with his face mask on.

It is a striking contrast to the celebratory atmosphere that normally accompanies the opening day festivities of the sport regarded as America's pastime.

In Chicago, hardcore fans milled around Wrigley Field or paid a premium to watch from the rooftop balconies of the buildings across the street. Fake crowd noise was piped in throughout the stadium and several venues filled the empty seats with hundreds of cardboard cutouts with pictures of fans adding to the faux atmosphere.

"Opening day usually is winter coats and throngs of people," Cubs fan Kim Horvas said. "This is weird."

In New York, a moment of silence was held before the game for the victims of the coronavirus pandemic.

Cespedes' homer snapped a scoreless tie as the Mets improved to 39-20 alltime on opening day. Their .661 win percentage is the best in the major leagues.

Cespedes, who was sidelined with a broken right ankle and two heel surgeries, smacked the first ever home run and RBI by a designated hitter in a National League stadium.

"I don't care if he took a five-year hiatus, when he gets in the batter's box, you're worried," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "He's such a presence."

Seth Lugo tossed two one-hit innings in relief and earned the win. Justin Wilson threw a one-hit eighth, and Edwin Diaz worked around a one-out walk to Freddie Freeman in the ninth to earn the save.

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