Spring games begin with fans, new faces, moment for Mancini

Nationals Cardinals Spring Baseball

Nolan Arenado in his new Cardinal red, Mookie Betts back in Dodger blue. October breakout star Randy Arozarena with a hit in his first February at-bat, Buster Posey returning from an opt-out year.

And a socially distanced standing ovation for Trey Mancini.

All over spring training, baseball enjoyed a bevy of reassuring signs Sunday on the opening day of Grapefruit and Cactus league play.

Including people in the seats, albeit in numbers limited by COVID-19 protocols.

The Toronto-Yankees game at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida, drew 2,637, close to its permitted maximum of 2,800 in a park that holds over 10,000. A little farther south in Sarasota, the Pittsburgh-Baltimore opener crowd of 1,705 was officially listed as a sellout.

“I’m glad we got some of the fans back,” Yankees slugger Luke Voit said.

Many top names were in play, too.

World Series MVP Corey Seager drove in the first run for Los Angeles, 22-year-old Fernando Tatis Jr. played for the first time since signing his $330 million, 14-year contract, and All-Stars DJ LeMahieu, José Altuve and Joey Votto took swings.

Jazz Chisholm of the Marlins and Adam Haseley of the Phillies did even better — they led off games with home runs.

Say, what’s all this talk about a deadened ball?

A change easily noticeable: shortened games. Major League Baseball is letting teams cut these early exhibitions down to five innings if they want, coming after a season in which the coronavirus forced clubs to alter workouts and play only 60 times.

The Chicago White Sox and Milwaukee stopped after six innings in Arizona. The only Florida game to go nine was Washington-St. Louis, and tied 4-all.

Around the diamonds, Marcus Semien, Andrew Benintendi and Elvis Andrus made their exhibition debuts for new teams and Todd Frazier homered for Pittsburgh.

Not many aces on the mound on the first day — Jack Flaherty, Nathan Eovaldi and Iván Nova were among the familiar names limbering up, and they each got tagged.

By far, the most touching scene involved Mancini.

After producing 35 home runs and 97 RBIs for the Orioles in 2019, he seemed primed for even bigger things. But after playing just five exhibitions last year, he needed to end his season to have surgery for colon cancer.

When Mancini came up in the first inning against Pittsburgh, he drew a nice round of applause as he approached the batter’s box and waved to the crowd at Ed Smith Stadium. The cheers kept growing, with pitcher Chad Kuhl stepping off the mound and umpire Will Little cleaning the plate to prolong the salute.

Mancini took off his helmet to acknowledge a standing ovation that included the fans, the Orioles and the Pirates.

“It was amazing,” he said. “I almost teared up a little bit, I’m not going to lie.”

Moments later, the slugging first baseman, who turns 29 in a few weeks, lined a single to center field.

“It’s almost a year to the day when I was last in a game, so it definitely felt like a moment where we came full circle a little bit,” he said. “I thought more about everything that happened today than I have in a long time. I’ve mostly tried to in a lot of ways just move on and not think too much about last year. But today I ran through all the tough days that we had and really tried to appreciate and cherish today.”

FROM AROUND THE GRAPEFRUIT AND CACTUS LEAGUES

MARINERS 5, PADRES 4

Prized prospects Julio Rodriguez and Jarred Kelenic combined to deliver the winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning a week after disrespectful comments from CEO Kevin Mather regarding both players became public. Mather has since resigned. Rodriguez and Kelenic offered a look at Seattle’s future when Kelenic walked and scored on Rodriguez’s two-out single.

Marco Gonzales made his first spring start for Seattle, allowing two hits and an unearned run in two innings. Kyle Seager and Dylan Moore had RBI singles, while Evan White doubled in a pair. Mitch Haniger was in the lineup for Seattle for the first time since June 6, 2019, following a series of surgeries after he ruptured a testicle from a foul ball. Haniger singled in two trips, scoring a run.

Center fielder Trent Grisham, coming off his first Gold Glove last season, doubled and scored a run for San Diego. Manny Machado singled and walked, and Wil Myers hit a solo home run.

CARDINALS 4, NATIONALS 4 (9)

Arenado was hitless in two trips, striking out with two runners on in the first inning and flying out to center in the third. Flaherty surrendered three runs, four hits and t