At least five players will miss opener after one tests positive

The Nationals will be without at least five players and one staff member for Thursday night’s season opener after learning early this morning one of the players tested positive for COVID-19, general manager Mike Rizzo announced today.

After making it through six full weeks of spring training with zero positive tests in the organization, the Nationals had every reason to be confident as they headed north to begin the season. But in the round of testing that took place Monday morning before their Grapefruit League finale against the Astros, one positive result came back early this morning.

Nats-Park-Cherry-Blossoms-sidebar.jpgThe one player whose test came back positive, along with four other players and one staffer who were deemed close contacts, are now quarantined and are not allowed to play the opening night game against the Mets. It’s not known yet when any of them will be cleared to return.

“We’re still in the process of finding out exactly what their status is,” Rizzo said from Nationals Park during a Zoom session with reporters. “They certainly will be out for tomorrow’s game, and we’re going to adjust from there depending on what MLB protocol dictates.”

The entire team underwent two more rounds of testing this morning, according to Rizzo: the standard Major League Baseball-approved test that returns results in 36 hours, and a rapid test that returns results quicker but is not deemed sufficient by MLB to change a player’s status. If any more players’ tests come back positive, they also would become ineligible to play.

Regardless of the number of players deemed ineligible, Thursday’s game will be played as scheduled (weather permitting). If the Nationals need to replace anyone on the 26-man roster, they will use players who have now assembled at their alternate training site in Fredericksburg.

“The reason for the alternate site being so close is exactly for this scenario playing out now,” Rizzo said. “We’re certainly prepared for it, no matter the numbers they throw at us. Hey, we’ve got a game tomorrow night against (Jacob) deGrom and the Mets, and we’re going to field the best team we can to win that game and moving forward.”

Today’s unexpected news felt eerily similar to the announcement Rizzo made hours before the Nationals’ 2020 opener, when Juan Soto had to be removed from the active roster after testing positive for COVID-19. The star outfielder never got sick, never tested positive again and believes it was a false result, yet was required to miss the season’s first seven games until he was permitted to leave quarantine from his D.C. apartment.

In that case, no other players were impacted. In this case, at least four others are.

“Experience is always a good teacher,” Rizzo said. “We went through a little bit of this opening day last year. MLB has done a great job throughout the season last year to get us through a season. Their assistance and advocacy helping us through this season is very important.”

With strict protocols still in place, players spread out among multiple clubhouses and often required to work out separate from each other, the Nationals made it through the entire spring without any known incident or positive test. Across the entire sport, only 25 players and eight staff members tested positive during spring training, giving league and team officials reason to be cautiously optimistic.

But the start of the season adds a significant new element to the process: full travel. After facing only four other clubs that train near their spring complex in West Palm Beach, the Nationals now will be traveling across the country during a normal, 162-game schedule, something that hasn’t been done since 2019.

And the first team flight of 2021 may have played a role in the current situation. After getting tested Monday morning, the Nationals played the Grapefruit League finale, then boarded a bus to Palm Beach International Airport and flew home to D.C. on their charter plane.

They had Tuesday off to get settled into their homes and apartments and were scheduled to work out and hold a simulated game today at Nationals Park, though that was canceled. Players and staff members wound up spending the day at home instead of together as they await the results of their latest round of tests.

“We’ve done so well in spring training,” said right-hander Max Scherzer, who flew home from Florida with his family, wasn’t on the charter and thus is confident he’ll be fine to start the opener. “Everybody across the game, we had seen so few positive cases across spring training as a whole. It just shows you how quickly that can turn. It can turn on a dime. We have to face it, and we have to overcome it.”

All of this is playing out against the backdrop of a massive vaccine rollout across the nation. Some teams have already been able to offer shots to all players, and those that reach the 85 percent threshold for herd immunity (including the Cardinals, who announced today they have achieved that) will be permitted to relax their restrictions and protocols.

The Nationals have not yet been given the opportunity to get the entire team vaccinated. When they are told they can, Rizzo (who said he has already received his first dose) said he will encourage everyone to follow suit, though the team cannot require anyone to do it.

“I got one of my two vaccines, so I’m a proponent of it,” the GM said. “I would recommend it to everybody out there. But the players are going to make their own decisions on it.”

Scherzer, a member of the Players Association’s executive subcommittee, sees the light at the end of the tunnel fast approaching.

“I feel like we’re really close to the end of this, because of the vaccine,” the right-hander said. “Once we’re vaccinated - I should really say, once we have the choice to have that vaccination, the guys that do and the guys that don’t, it just is what it is - at that point, as I see it, I’m basically done with this. I’m ready to get back to normal. I’m ready for me personally to do everything that we want to do on and off the field and live our lives as normal as best we can.”

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