Dodgers, Yankees lose as Covid looms over baseball openers

Los Angeles (AFP) –


The defending champion Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees suffered opening defeats as Major League Baseball's 2021 season began Thursday under the shadow of Covid-19.

Just over a year after the pandemic plunged America's pastime into chaos, forcing a four-month shutdown and leading to an abbreviated 60-game regular season, fans returned to ballparks across the United States for the start of the 162-game marathon.

But the spectre 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.

"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-seater Yankee Stadium hosted around 11,000 fans on Thursday 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 United States and Canada.

Fans in New York were required to provide proof of either full vaccination or a negative test within the last 72 hours before being allowed entry. Their temperature was also checked at the turnstiles.

- Mental step -

Not even steady drizzle throughout the morning could dampen the mood amongst fans in a city which was one of the worst-hit in America 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," said 26-year-old Jose Villeneuve.

"This is the first step for me mentally to think that we're getting back to normal, that things are looking good."

The Yankees were unable to send their loyal supporters home with a season-opening win though.

The Bronx Bombers, one of the favourites 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 inning.

In Denver meanwhile last season's World Series champions the Dodgers were downed 8-5 by the Colorado Rockies in their National League West match-up.

The Dodgers took the lead in bizarre circumstances, when Cody Bellinger bludgeoned a fly ball to left-field which bounced out of Rockies fielder Raimel Tapia's glove and over the wall.

But 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 signalling that the ball had gone over the fence, Turner passed his team-mate on the way back to first base.

That meant Bellinger was ruled out because he had passed turned on basepaths. 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.

The Rockies however pulled away with four more runs -- including two from wild pitches by Dodgers reliever Jimmy Nelson -- to set up the win.