The Nationals were cleared to open their season Tuesday against the Braves after another round of tests came back negative for COVID-19, and will be given the opportunity to hold a full workout for all healthy and eligible players at Nationals Park on Monday.
Major League Baseball made the much anticipated announcement late tonight after another long day of uncertainty. Though the Nationals (who now have 11 players and two staff members in quarantine) saw their fourth consecutive game postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, they do now know there is no further risk of infection or spread, and they will be allowed to play Tuesday.
It’s not yet clear whether the Nats and Braves’ original three-game series scheduled for Monday-Wednesday will be condensed to two games Tuesday-Wednesday, or whether they might need to finish it Thursday afternoon before flying to Los Angeles for Friday afternoon’s road opener at Dodger Stadium. MLB said an announcement about the rescheduling of all postponed games to date (including the opening three-game home series versus the Mets) will be made when available.
For now, the Nationals can take solace knowing they are cleared to hold a full workout Monday afternoon in advance of Tuesday’s game, something general manager Mike Rizzo strongly argued for over a stressful weekend.
Rizzo, during a Zoom session with reporters this afternoon, said one more player and one more staff member have been placed in mandatory quarantine after the D.C. Department of Health deemed them close contacts to those who previously tested positive for COVID-19. That brings the total number of people currently unavailable to 13: four players who tested positive, plus seven players and two staffers designated as close contacts.
While strongly suggesting he believed his team needed more time both to ensure nobody else was at risk and to ensure healthy players could resume workouts at Nationals Park, Rizzo said the club would be ready to face the Braves as scheduled at 4:05 p.m. Monday if MLB deemed the game playable.
“As I said the other day, we are preparing - and have been preparing - to play Monday,” the GM said. “Now if that happens, we’ll be prepared to play. But again, we’re in discussion with MLB about that.”
There appeared to be two issues factoring into the decision: whether more time and more negative tests were needed to ensure everyone will be safe to take the field, and whether healthy players needed more than a token opportunity to play catch at Nationals Park before opening the regular season.
On the first matter, the news has been encouraging. The Nationals have received no new positive tests since Friday, when the fourth and last of their players was confirmed to have contracted COVID-19. No players are showing any symptoms of the disease anymore. Tests continue to be taken twice daily: a rapid nasal swab test that is not deemed official by MLB and the PCR saliva test that is sent to the league’s laboratories and serves as the final say on all matters.
On the second matter, there appeared to be more concern. Through Sunday, pitchers have been allowed to enter Nationals Park individually and work with a catcher and a coach, but position players have not and there have been no group activities.
This is a similar protocol the Cardinals faced last summer following their outbreak, with individual workouts permitted but no full-roster gatherings until hours before they played their first game following a lengthy break.
Rizzo made it clear he believed all of his healthy players should be allowed to work out more extensively before being asked to take the field for a regular season game.
“It makes a lot of sense for baseball, player protection-wise, to have these guys go through their paces in a full workout before we take the field and go from zero to 100 miles an hour without working out for a very long period of time,” Rizzo said.
It was unclear most of the day whether MLB agreed with that sentiment. The league had not announced any changes to the schedule, which has always featured the Braves playing at Nationals Park at 4:05 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Atlanta manager Brian Snitker, whose team was swept by the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park, told reporters the team intended to travel to Washington this evening and hadn’t yet been told to change those plans.
But the late-night announcement by MLB finally put an end to those questions and provided clarity to both teams.
Without knowing if and when they would be cleared to resume full workouts, the Nationals had instructed players and pitchers to find any creative way they can to stay sharp, from throwing baseballs into mattresses propped up against the wall to setting up batting tees in living rooms.
“Guys are just trying to do what they can to stay active,” Rizzo said, “and to adhere to all the protocols that we have them under right now.”
When they do finally play Tuesday, the Nationals know they’ll be fielding a roster missing a host of big leaguers and reinforced with many players from their alternate training camp in Fredericksburg, which has commenced with workouts. Though they have not released the names of any of the impacted players or coaches, Rizzo confirmed the majority of the 11 players currently ineligible would’ve been on their originally planned opening night roster, though “several” would not have made the team.
The player and staff member who were added to the quarantine list today were placed there by D.C. Health, which determined each met enough criteria for close contact to be included with the others. MLB had previously designated them as persons who required “extra scrutiny,” but had not been officially placed in quarantine.
The timeline for getting those players back on the field varies in each case and is subject to a convoluted combination of factors being examined by the Nationals, MLB and the D.C. Department of Health. MLB protocols require a 10-day isolation period for anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 and a seven-day quarantine period for anyone deemed a close contact. D.C. Health regulations increases those numbers to 14 days and 10 days, respectively, though that’s not a hard-and-fast law and can be adjusted on a case-by-case basis.
“There’s a lot of things that go into it,” Rizzo said. “It’s extra scrutiny on players that have tested positive over the quarantine guys. Were you asymptomatic, or did you have some symptoms? When did they go away, the symptoms? That type of thing. So all of these things are taken into account by the scientists at MLB and in D.C.”
As things now stand, the Nationals will play at least two games against the Braves this week, then embark on their first road trip to Los Angeles and St. Louis. It’s an especially difficult opening stretch to a season that only looks more daunting now, given this new challenge.
“The 162(-game) season is mapped out for a reason,” Rizzo said. “We want to take the long term approach, the big picture approach. To throw a rush of doubleheaders into the mix is never a positive thing. But this is about the health of the players, our staff, their families. We need to know that the process and the spreading of this virus is over before we feel good about taking the field.”