As if this week’s events - and the prospect of events still to come - hadn’t already left the Nationals and all who observe them on edge, here now was the sight of Trea Turner departing tonight’s game in Philadelphia after scoring on Josh Bell’s top-of-the-first homer.
Given the date on the calendar and the organization’s July freefall, it wasn’t inappropriate to immediately wonder if Turner had just been traded. Then, as replays of his trip around the bases began to be shown, it seemed more plausible Turner had suffered some kind of injury along the way.
Who would’ve guessed neither was true, and that Turner’s departure was required by Major League Baseball protocols because he tested positive for COVID-19?
“I found out right after he had scored,” manager Davey Martinez said later in his Zoom session with reporters. “Protocol, I have to pull him right out of the game.”
Add it to the ever-growing list of unexpected calamities that have befallen the Nationals during this most unusual season, culminating with one of the worst weeks in club history.
And yet, at the end of this long day and night, there were the Nationals celebrating at the middle of the diamond, congratulating Brad Hand after their beleaguered closer finished off a 6-4 victory on the heels of back-to-back blown saves.
Hand, pitching for the third straight day, had to retire the top of the Phillies order (the same hitters he could not retire Monday night) to secure this one. He wound up in a jam after Carter Kieboom airmailed a routine throw from third to allow leadoff hitter Jean Segura to reach base. But he proceeded to get J.T. Realmuto to fly out to left, Bryce Harper to pop up to the catcher and Andrew McCutchen (Monday night’s walk-off hero) to look at a slider at the knees to end the game.
“I’ve got all the trust in the world in him, I really do,” Martinez said. “A couple blown saves is not going to change what I feel about him and how I’m going to use him. He got a big save for us today.”
It was an adventure just to get the ball to Hand. With Daniel Hudson on the shelf after pitching the previous three days, Martinez wound up getting 3 1/3 scoreless innings of relief from Sam Clay, Wander Suero and Kyle Finnegan (who also was pitching for the third straight day).
And then Victor Robles had to depart after feeling tightness on the lower right side of his back during a ninth-inning swing, yet another malady to a team that has run out of ways to laugh these things off.
“I didn’t want to mess around,” Martinez said, “so I took him out.”
Somehow, though, the Nationals walked away victorious, snapping a five-game losing streak and even picking up a game on the first-place Mets, who were blown out by the Braves.
“It feels great, man,” Juan Soto said. “Winning’s always fun. We know we’ve been through tough times the last couple days. But we’re always going to keep trying, keep trying until the end. We can’t give up.”
Everything seemed to be going splendidly early on for the Nationals, who jumped out to a 3-0 lead on Bell’s laser of an opposite-field homer in the top of the first. But Turner, who had started the rally with an infield single, looked gassed after going first-to-third on Soto’s single to right, then barely jogged home on Bell’s homer and didn’t even stick around to congratulate his teammate.
Turner retreated to the visitors’ dugout and did not return when the bottom of the first arrived. Instead, it was Gerardo Parra in left field, pushing Josh Harrison to second base and sliding Alcides Escobar to shortstop.
“There’s lots of rumors flying around,” starter Erick Fedde added. “It’s like, ‘Oh, dang, what happened?’ “
After 45 minutes of rampant speculation, official word finally emerged from the Nationals: Turner had tested positive for COVID-19, and was out of the game due to MLB protocols. Martinez said no other players were immediately deemed close contacts and thus required to isolate.
Martinez could not comment on Turner’s vaccination status, but the manager did reveal that those on the roster and staff who are vaccinated no longer have to undergo the kind of regular testing that appears to have come back positive in Turner’s case.
Turner became the sixth known Nats player to test positive this season, joining the four unnamed players who were part of the club’s end-of-spring-training outbreak and Fedde, who learned he tested positive in mid-May despite being vaccinated.
“I can’t speak for him, but I know I just went through shock of feeling fine,” Fedde said. “I mean, Trea led us off and rounded the bases, looked good. I’m sure he felt that same way and just wanted answers. Honestly, answers you can’t get on where you got it and how it happened.”
In a cruel twist of fate, it was Fedde who took the mound tonight as his shortstop was heading to the clubhouse. The right-hander has endured through a wild ride of a season himself, and tonight’s start fit right in with it all.
Fedde was mostly effective for four innings, though he did allow an RBI double to Harper in the first and another to Odúbel Herrera in the fourth. He was on the verge of getting through the fifth with no damage, but then the bottom fell out.
Harper blasted a drive off the center field wall that Robles couldn’t catch, then scampered 360 feet around the bases while the Nationals tried to corral the careening ball for his first career inside-the-park home run and fifth career homer in 18 at-bats against Fedde, his former high school and major league teammate.
McCutchen followed Harper with a solo shot to left. And when Rhys Hoskins then singled, Fedde found himself handing over the ball to Martinez having allowed four runs in 4 2/3 erratic innings.
“I really liked it, honestly, until the fifth,” Fedde said of his outing. “There was just a couple pitches early where I gave up a double here and there. But honestly, I was really happy. I liked the way I attacked. Unfortunately, that last inning kind of got away from me.”
Fedde couldn’t qualify for the win, but the Nationals did hold the lead, thanks both to Bell’s three-run homer in the first and Soto’s three-run homer in the second. Soto’s 424-foot, opposite-field drive bounced well up the stands in left-center and then landed on the concourse behind it, his seventh homer in 11 games since he participated in the Home Run Derby.
“I’m feeling great,” the 22-year-old slugger said. “Right now, it feels good. My bat, everything. It feels great. I really felt good today. I even told my teammates I’m going to hit four homers. But I fell short.”
He wasn’t alone. Those early three-run homers were the extent of the Nats’ offense on this night. As has happened too many times this season, they scored in bunches but not again. And so it was they found themselves leading late on the road, needing their bullpen to close things out.
In a week that has featured so many unexpected developments, this one felt eerily familiar. The result, fortunately, was not familiar.
“I can tell you what I feel like: These guys are committed to winning baseball games.” Martinez said. “All the things we’ve gone through, you watch these guys go out there and play hard every day. Like I’ve said before, I’m proud of these guys. They don’t quit. We get down, and things happen, they stay positive and they keep moving forward.
“Eventually, we’ll get these guys back. Guys will start coming off the IL. We’ll get them back and we’ll just continue to play baseball. We’ve still got a lot of games left. All I ask them to do every day is just stay positive and just play hard, and they’re doing that.”