Can MLB over­come the ‘fire drills’?

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Gabe Lac­ques

In nine days, the Astros will open their pan­demic-short­ened 2020 sea­son, and as they quickly ramp up through three weeks of “sum­mer camp” train­ing, the red flags are im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore.

Oh, All-Star third base­man Alex Breg­man is work­ing through some swing is­sues and launched a home run in an in­trasquad game Mon­day. Pitcher Josh James joined work­outs af­ter the birth of his sec­ond child, re­port­ing in ex­cel­lent shape. Even with no high-fives to cel­e­brate small vic­to­ries, the an­tic­i­pa­tion of real baseball is build­ing.

Yet the Astros, to use one high-pro­file ex­am­ple of a team try­ing to play through the re­al­i­ties of COVID-19, can scarcely go a day with­out myr­iad re­minders of the sea­son’s chal­lenges.

Reign­ing AL rookie of the year Yor­dan Al­varez and start­ing pitcher Jose Urquidy have yet to re­port and were placed on the in­jured list, with no ex­pla­na­tion for their ab­sences. Sun­day, the team’s ma­jor league pitch­ers and coach­ing staff were kept away from a work­out at Minute Maid Park af­ter pos­si­ble ex­po­sure to a per­son with COVID-19, prompt­ing the club to move back the start time of Mon­day’s work­out as they awaited test re­sults.

Satur­day, their work­out was can­celed al­to­gether, the sec­ond time in six days that hap­pened.

First-year gen­eral man­ager James Click says in­juries are al­ways front of mind any time a group of play­ers be­gin pre­par­ing for the sea­son. But this year the state of play is de­cid­edly dif­fer­ent.

“I re­ally do think that which­ever team has the fewest cases of coro­n­avirus is go­ing to win,” he said. “It’s im­pos­si­ble to state how that can dev­as­tate a team, and that’s why we have to be so vig­i­lant about it.”

In­deed, the Astros have cau­tion in abun­dance these days, erring on the side of iso­lat­ing as nec­es­sary, await­ing test re­sults if they are de­layed and heed­ing as gospel the words and ac­tions of Jeremiah Ran­dall, the point man in their ef­forts to make Minute Maid Park as pan­demic-proof as pos­si­ble.

The three-week window for “sum­mer train­ing” al­lows for some starts and stops, and baseball, un­like, say, bas­ket­ball and foot­ball, is far less re­liant on col­lec­tive co­he­sion on the field. Yet the most alarm­ing el­e­ment of this dis­jointed ramp-up pe­riod is a lack of clar­ity in how teams and Ma­jor League Baseball re­act should these prob­lems oc­cur in what’s al­ready a tightly bunched 60game sea­son over 66 days.

“We’re work­ing closely with Ma­jor League Baseball and our doctors on that,” says Click. “Ob­vi­ously, we want to do ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to avoid that, and that’s why fol­low­ing the screen­ing and test­ing pro­to­cols will be so crit­i­cal.

“Hav­ing gone through a cou­ple of these fire drills, it makes me have a lot of faith in the pro­to­cols we have in place. We’ve gone through them, we’ve worked through some things we didn’t ex­pect, con­ver­sa­tions about pos­si­bil­i­ties we did not con­tem­plate un­til you end up in that sit­u­a­tion. It’s ob­vi­ously bet­ter to go through them now than the reg­u­lar sea­son.”

Yet the sheer vol­ume of “fire drills” across the ma­jor leagues cre­ates a mind-bog­gling set of com­pet­i­tive dis­ad­van­tages should they play out dur­ing the sea­son.

On Mon­day alone, the Astros were short-handed, the Cubs with­out man­ager David Ross and five oth­ers for work­outs as they awaited test re­sults, and long­time Astros neme­sis Trevor Bauer tweeted that he “can’t go to the field” due to a de­layed test.

All this came one week af­ter a half­dozen teams, the Astros among them, can­celed at least one work­out due to a hol­i­day-week­end de­lay in test re­sults.

The first pitch of the 2020 sea­son is ex­pected to be thrown by Na­tion­als ace Max Scherzer, in a July 23 prime-time matchup against the Yan­kees. That oth­er­wise ap­pe­tiz­ing matchup, though, is for now rid­dled by prom­i­nent ab­sences, many stretch­ing back to MLB’s “in­take” process when play­ers re­ported at the start of the month.

Na­tion­als out­field­ers Juan Soto and Vic­tor Robles, post­sea­son hero Howie Ken­drick and re­liever Wan­der Suero have yet to work out. Yan­kees All-Star sec­ond base­man DJ LeMahieu still has not re­turned from a pos­i­tive COVID-19 test and closer Aroldis Chap­man al­most cer­tainly will miss their opener af­ter test­ing pos­i­tive over the week­end.

The Rays, per­haps the AL’s deep­est team, just wel­comed No. 2 starter Tyler Glas­now to camp Tues­day morn­ing – and af­ter­ward ac­knowl­edged he tested pos­i­tive for the coro­n­avirus dur­ing in­take screen­ing. Yet to ap­pear are start­ing pitcher Yonny Chiri­nos and DH Jose Martinez, while All-Star out­fielder Austin Mead­ows and pitcher Bren­dan McKay have not been seen at Trop­i­cana Field for more than a week, with no ex­pla­na­tion.

At least the Rays have had rel­a­tive con­ti­nu­ity in their work­out sched­ule, a claim at least 10 teams can’t make.

“I don’t think we’re go­ing to make any ex­cuses about it,” says Breg­man. “I know our trainer is do­ing a tremen­dous job. The Astros or­ga­ni­za­tion is do­ing a great job keep­ing us safe. We’re go­ing to keep work­ing hard.”

And hope that the dis­rup­tions sub­side. Com­ings and go­ings are eas­ier to swal­low in camp – less so in a tightly packed sprint.

“I don’t think it’s lost on any of us the lo­gis­ti­cal heft of this en­tire op­er­a­tion – the num­ber of teams, num­ber of cities, the num­ber of hoops you have to jump through to get all these things done,” says Click. “In­evitably, there’s go­ing to be some hic­cups and speed bumps. You’re try­ing to cre­ate a new sys­tem on the fly.

“That said, hav­ing gone through a cou­ple of these (dis­rup­tions), you make the same mis­take once, hope­fully you don’t make it again. And hope­fully there will be fewer hic­cups go­ing for­ward.”


Astros star Alex Breg­man takes bat­ting prac­tice at Minute Maid Park.

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