Depleted Nats now face physical, psychological challenges

The Nationals have for the last 72 hours been in what Mike Rizzo referred to as “crisis management mode.” Every moment the longtime general manager has been awake since learning one of his players tested positive for COVID-19 has been spent trying to coordinate contact tracing, trying to figure out who’s healthy and who isn’t healthy and trying to figure out which 26 players ultimately are going to take the field on opening day (whenever that is).

“That’s often the way that this job is,” Rizzo said during Friday’s Zoom session with reporters. “I’m trying to be supportive of (manager) Davey (Martinez), the players and a conduit from ownership, their messages down to the players. We’ve got a great support system here, and the last person you have to worry about here is me. I’m doing great.”

Thumbnail image for Rizzo-Mask-Watches-Game-Sidebar.jpgIndeed, Rizzo has always had the kind of adjust-on-the-fly mindset to handle whatever unexpected challenges baseball throws his way, dating all the way back to the day in 2009 he took over as interim GM following Jim Bowden’s resignation and had to fly to the Dominican Republic to dismantle and then reconstruct the organization’s scandal-tainted prospect academy.

Make no mistake, though: There are multiple challenges everyone associated with the Nationals now faces as they try to climb their way back out of this emergency. There’s the obvious physical challenge, making sure everyone is healthy and those infected with COVID-19 get well soon. But there’s also a less-obvious psychological challenge, trying to cope with this week’s unexpected events, game postponements and the uncertain start of the 2021 season.

Once it’s clear how many people either contracted COVID-19 (four players, as of Friday afternoon) or are in mandatory quarantine due to contact tracing (five more players, plus one staff member), the remaining group of healthy players and staffers will begin to figure out how they’re going to prepare to open the season.

There was hope of conducting socially distanced workouts at Nationals Park today and Sunday in advance of a potential opening day Monday against the Braves. That was the best-case scenario as of Friday afternoon. Worst-case, the three-game series with Atlanta would also be in jeopardy if more players test positive over the weekend.

Then comes a road trip that would’ve been daunting under normal circumstances, let alone these unprecedented ones: three games at Dodger Stadium against the defending World Series champs, then three games at Busch Stadium against the National League Central favorites.

We don’t yet know which 26 players will be in Nats uniforms for all those games, but we do know it won’t be the full 26 who were supposed to make up the roster when spring training ended. The nine quarantined players aren’t going to eligible for a while, even if they only have to adhere to Major League Baseball’s mandatory wait period (10 days for infected players, seven for close contacts) and not the District of Columbia’s stricter rules (14 days for infected people, 10 for close contacts).

In all likelihood, the Nationals are going to be facing the Braves, Dodgers and Cardinals with a roster loaded with players who wouldn’t have made the club otherwise.

“I have confidence in the players that are going to be on the roster,” Rizzo said. “That’s why you build depth in the organization. I would say that it’s unfortunate that this happened right at opening day, but is it any worse than it happening in the middle of the season, when you’ve played half a season? We’re going to take this as-is. We’re going to care for our players, care for their families, make sure we do the right thing, put the best 26 players on the field, whenever we play - be it Monday or whenever we start the season - and get after whoever we’re playing.”

Rizzo has the temperament to be able to say that and believe it. Do his players? How do they look at the upcoming schedule and not feel daunted by the challenge?

Martinez said all spring a hot start to the season was necessary. He wanted everyone to be “May 1 ready on April 1.” A 19-31 start would not be acceptable this time around.

Now? The Nationals - or, more accurately, the 26 players who will be wearing Nationals uniforms to begin the season - are going to have to scratch and claw for as many wins as they can under the circumstances and hope they can hold down the fort until the full roster is eligible to play.

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