As Major League Baseball gradually approaches something resembling a finish line with the coronavirus, its most joyous day of the year – opening day – was waylaid by the postponement of the nationally televised Washington Nationals-New York Mets opener due to COVID-19 issues with the Nationals.
MLB announced the postponement Thursday morning, citing “ongoing contact tracing involving members of the Nationals organization.”
The Nationals, who got through an entire spring training without a positive test for the coronavirus, were dealt a blow upon their arrival in Washington when they learned a player tested positive, resulting in four more players and a staff member isolated for the opener after contact tracing.
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Still, general manager Mike Rizzo expressed confidence Thursday night’s game would go on, and summoned a handful of players from the club’s alternate training site in Fredericksburg, Va., to backfill the five roster spots.
The original positive test was taken Monday, raising the specter more positive tests resulted from testing conducted in subsequent days.
“Experience is always a good teacher,” Rizzo said Wednesday. “We went through this last opening day. It’s not the unknown anymore. We know how to test; we know what happens when someone tests positive and we react quickly and swiftly through the protocol that was established last season.”
Yet the gaggle of unavailable players was too much to field a representative roster for the opener. Almost all the Nationals flew from West Palm Beach, Fla. to Washington on Monday evening – opening-day starter Max Scherzer, for one, said he flew separately with his family – and the five players were immediately identified as close contacts.
MLB’s protocols define close contact as being within six feet of someone for a cumulative 15 minutes in a 24-hour period.
The high-profile opener – two-time Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom and three-time winner Max Scherzer were to face off, and superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor was to make his Mets debut – will be booted to another day.
ESPN, which is broadcasting the game, reported it won’t be made up on Friday’s scheduled off day, pushing the Mets-Nationals opener to at least Saturday.
It’s a sobering reminder that, after a 2020 season where the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals suffered multiplayer outbreaks before the league righted the ship, that the specter of the pandemic will linger, even as vaccinations ramp up.
Rizzo confirmed that he received his first dose of vaccine, and St. Louis Cardinals GM John Mozeliak told reporters Thursday that his club had reached the 85% plateau of vaccinations among staff. That will enable the Cardinals to loosen some COVID-19 protocols, such as eating in restaurants.
The Nationals are in a different situation, their opener delayed and significant uncertainty surrounding their roster.
Contributing: Bob Nightengale