The Nationals’ entire weekend series against the Mets was postponed today by Major League Baseball, with four players having officially tested positive for COVID-19 and six others (five players, one staff member) in mandatory quarantine after being designated close contacts.
The postponement of all three scheduled games at Nationals Park wasn’t a terribly surprising announcement, given the news of the last 24 hours, but it’s nonetheless another disappointing development for both clubs, which expected to open the 2021 season with a nationally televised game Thursday night but now won’t be able to play until at least Monday.
During an early afternoon Zoom session with reporters, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said his team is preparing to now open the season Monday afternoon against the Braves, though that is hardly guaranteed at this point.
“This is a day-by-day thing, but our preparation is to play a game against the Braves on Monday,” Rizzo said. “Depending on what happens in the next day or so, we’ll be in contact with MLB, and we’ll make the decision on whether we’re playing or not. But we are, as of right now, preparing to play Monday.”
Whenever they do finally play, it appears the Nationals will be forced to do so with at least nine players in quarantine and unavailable, with a host of players from the alternate training site in Fredericksburg filling out a large chunk of the roster. That number could even increase if any more players are forced into quarantine based on more positive tests or contact-tracing protocols.
With a brutal nine-game stretch against the National League’s consensus division favorites (home vs. the Braves, on the road vs. the Dodgers and Cardinals) scheduled to commence Monday, can a team missing nine or more major leaguers still get off to the strong start manager Davey Martinez has been pushing for since camp opened six weeks ago?
“We’re going to find out,” Rizzo said. “We have confidence in our depth. We like the players we have down there in Fredericksburg, and we’re going to be relying heavily on them. When you’re trying to get where we’re getting - I said it in 2019 - your stars have to be stars. And our good players are going to have to play well, and our depth is going to have to shine. We’re going to put the best 26 we can on the field, and we’re going to give them hell, everybody we play.”
Today’s developments so far ...
* The one player whose test result Thursday produced a likely positive result has now been confirmed to have tested positive. That means four players in total have now tested positive. Only one has been symptomatic, and he is now feeling “close to normal,” according to Rizzo.
* Contact tracing in response to the additional positive tests have resulted in five more players being placed in mandatory quarantine, bringing the total to nine players and one staff member who are unable to leave their homes for at least one week and possibly more.
* The Nationals are still awaiting results of Thursday’s round of testing, which should be made available later today.
The new batch of results coming later today could be critical toward determining if the team can actually begin the season Monday or not. If any new positive results are returned, the odds MLB will clear the team to play Monday will grow slimmer.
If, however, the tests all come back negative, the Nationals are hoping the league will permit them to hold workouts Saturday at Nationals Park, spaced out and in separate groups throughout the day. Rizzo views such workouts as necessary in order to play Monday.
“You can’t just go from a dead stop in this postponement to ramping up to play the Atlanta Braves and not expect (there) to be injuries,” the GM said. “So we have to find ways to work guys out. Hopefully MLB allows us to work out tomorrow. ... It’s just hard to have them sitting and playing video games or whatever for two or three days, and then to ramp up again. To me, it’s a safety issue, and we’ve got to get these guys’ blood flowing. We’ve got to get them moving around so they don’t go into the season going from zero to 100 miles an hour without preparation for the last couple of days.”
Whether opening day takes place Monday or sometime later, Max Scherzer remains the scheduled starter, according to Rizzo. The three-time Cy Young Award winner was not on the team charter from West Palm Beach, Fla., to Washington on Monday night, instead flying home with his family, and thus has not been in close contact with the affected players.
The status of the rest of the club isn’t known publicly yet. Rizzo said there are no plans for now to name the players who tested positive or are in forced quarantine, though the revised 26-man roster that will need to be revealed prior to the season opener will probably give it away. (The team did formally submit a planned roster to MLB prior to Thursday’s postponement, but more changes will be coming.)
As has too often been the case over the last year-plus, everyone can make contingency plans for now but must be prepared to adjust on the fly.
“I go back to what we talked about before this COVID crisis came about: We’ve got a really good team that we’re anxious to see play,” Rizzo said. “The depth of this organization will have to get us out of the gate, sooner rather than later, but we’re excited to toe the rubber and play baseball and real baseball games with real fans in the stands.”