By MIKE FITZPATRICK
NEW YORK (AP) — Sure didn’t take much time for Yoenis Céspedes to swing right into a DH role in his long-awaited return.
Céspedes came back with a bang, immediately capitalizing on the new designated hitter rule in the National League by launching a home run that sent Jacob deGrom and the New York Mets past the Atlanta Braves 1-0 in their season opener Friday.
After five dominant innings from deGrom, who was popping the catcher’s mitt with 99 mph fastballs at the start, Céspedes connected in the seventh off reliever Chris Martin (0-1) for his first long ball since his previous major league game on July 20, 2018.
“I’m very excited. It was very exciting just to be able to play again,” Céspedes said though a translator. “I don’t have words for a situation like that.”
“It proved to me that I can still be the same player that I used to be,” he added.
The 34-year-old slugger missed most of the past two seasons with a string of leg injuries, requiring surgery on both heels and then a broken ankle after a bad fall at his Florida ranch in a reported run-in with a wild boar.
“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.”
Rules changes for this shortened season delayed by the coronavirus provided a DH in NL games for the first time — giving the Mets a perfect slot for Céspedes even if left field presents a problem.
“The funny thing was I joked with him before the game, I said, `Why are you hitting for me?’” deGrom said. “Really happy for him.”
With no fans at Citi Field due to the pandemic, it was easy to hear teammates exclaiming in the dugout when Céspedes sent his drive soaring into the empty left-field seats.
“They erupted. They went crazy,” rookie manager Luis Rojas said. “Obviously, it’s a big moment for Cés. He’s been waiting.”
Seth Lugo (1-0) tossed two innings, pitching out of trouble in the seventh, and Justin Wilson whiffed Ronald Acuna Jr. with a runner in scoring position to end the eighth.
Edwin Díaz, who lost his job as closer during a miserable 2019 season, struck out two in a hitless ninth for the save. He worked around a one-out walk, giving the 38-year-old Rojas a victory in his debut.
Afterward, he got a game ball from his players and a celebratory shower that Rojas said was beginning to make his uniform stink.
“I don’t know what they threw on me, but they threw a lot of stuff,” Rojas said.
Braves All-Star starter Mike Soroka, who won his previous two matchups with deGrom, allowed four hits in six outstanding innings. He was aided by two terrific grabs from three-time Gold Glove center fielder Ender Inciarte, who robbed J.D. Davis of a potential two-run homer.
“He matched up with the game’s best right there,” Snitker said about Soroka. “It was pretty impressive on both sides.”
Coming off consecutive Cy Young Awards, deGrom fanned eight and permitted only a broken-bat single and a walk. He was pulled after 72 pitches following a back-tightness scare early last week. The right-hander extended his scoreless streak to a career-best 28 innings dating to last season, the longest active streak in the majors.
“I’ve gotten used to watching him and feeding off the energy he brings to the mound,” Soroka said. “He’s been so good the last few years and you just want to keep up.”
Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman made his 10th straight opening day start after returning to camp a week ago from a frightening bout with COVID-19 that spiked his fever to 104.5 degrees.
Marcell Ozuna doubled and went 1 for 4 in his Braves debut.
About 30 minutes before the first pitch, mascots Mr. Met and Mrs. Met strolled through the empty stands wearing makeshift masks and clapping and waving to nobody in particular.
The cardboard cutout photos occupying some seats included one of former Braves star and Mets nemesis Chipper Jones.
FAVORITE DAY OF THE YEAR
The Mets improved to 39-20 in openers (despite losing their first eight), the best opening day winning percentage in the majors. They’ve won 12 of their last 15 — and 23 of the past 26 at home.
SENDING A MESSAGE
Both teams wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts for batting practice and joined in holding a long, black ribbon on the field during a pregame message on the video board from many Black major leaguers about eradicating racial injustice.
The national anthem was performed virtually on the video board by essential workers, each singing their part, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said “Let’s play ball!” It appeared all players on the field stood for the anthem.
Braves: The two-time defending NL East champions suddenly opened the 60-game season without their top two catchers, Tyler Flowers and Travis d’Arnaud, after both showed coronavirus symptoms and were placed on the injured list. Flowers and d’Arnaud have tested negative, Snitker said, but did not travel with the team. Snitker said he didn’t know what the symptoms were and he hoped the two just had “a bad cold.” They will continue to be tested. … Alex Jackson and William Contreras were recalled to handle catching duties. Jackson batted ninth and struck out twice, falling to 0 for 15 in his big league career. Contreras made his major league debut on defense in the eighth. … LHP Cole Hamels went on the 45-day IL on Thursday with triceps tendinitis.
Mets: RHP Marcus Stroman (torn left calf muscle) said it was “shocking” that an MRI he thought was precautionary revealed a torn left calf muscle this week. “It’s nothing serious, nothing that I’m truly concerned about,” he said. “Honestly, if I had never gotten the MRI, I would probably still be making my start.” Stroman didn’t want to speculate about how long he might be out, but noted he’s a fast healer.
Because he didn’t begin the season on the IL with a foot injury, Céspedes’ salary rose from $2,222,222 prorated ($6 million before the schedule was shortened) to $4,074,074 ($11 million before the change).
In a matchup of left-handers, Max Fried (17-6, 4.02 ERA) pitches the middle game of the series Saturday for Atlanta against Steven Matz (11-10, 4.21 ERA).
AP Sports Writer Charles Odum and AP Baseball Writer Ronald Blum contributed to this report.