Sev­eral MLB teams are limp­ing into play­offs

Ahead of next week’s post­sea­son, we sud­denly have teams per­form­ing like they could see an early exit, Bob Night­en­gale writes.

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Gabe Lac­ques

So, that was some­thing.

Can we never do it again, please? Ma­jor League Base­ball’s 60-game sea­son has stum­bled into its fi­nal week­end dazed but in­tact, like a way­ward out­fielder spun around by a fly ball, only to right him­self at the last and haul in the ball at the warn­ing track.

And here we are.

Was it worth it?

That’s a ques­tion we pon­dered two months ago, when MLB slugged its way through in­take test­ing and sum­mer camp and a bevy of pos­i­tive tests for the coronaviru­s, along with many more mys­te­ri­ous ab­sences that would later be de­ter­mined to be COVID-19 cases.

Stars were opt­ing out. Pitch­ers’ arms were fray­ing, or blow­ing out al­to­gether. COVID-19 was rav­aging the sun belt states, as it dawned on mil­lions that their chil­dren would be schooled at home.

Sixty days later, the game has made it. Just a fi­nal week­end re­mains in the reg­u­lar sea­son, and MLB, like a wideeyed child shak­ing gift-wrapped presents on Christ­mas Eve, now has its nearly bil­lion-dol­lar play­off TV pay­day in sight.

Bar­ring any week­end shut­downs, 28 teams will play the full 60 games, with the St. Louis Car­di­nals and Detroit Tigers set­tling for 58, un­less play­off ram­i­fi­ca­tions com­pel them to play a makeup up a dou­ble­header on Mon­day.

A 16-team play­off bazaar – bizarre? – com­mences Tues­day, a grand work­around that may ef­fec­tively triv­i­al­ize an en­tire sea­son, or in­ject adren­a­line into a play­off for­mat that lacks the madness of March, the im­me­di­acy of Jan­uary.

It will end, pre­sum­ably, with one team hoist­ing a tro­phy in a nearly empty sta­dium in Texas that still has that new car smell, ap­pro­pri­ate for a sea­son that Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Char­lie Mor­ton says has “a real ster­ile feel to it.”

That was by de­sign and ne­ces­sity, of

course, and by and large, the co­pi­ous pro­to­cols were tight­ened, largely fol­lowed and served in the ex­e­cu­tion of the sea­son.

Mis­sion ac­com­plished?

Pretty much. But be­fore we feast on the bread and cir­cus of the post­sea­son tour­na­ment and the piece of metal that will be sub­se­quently distribute­d, a nod to the costs in­curred is ap­pro­pri­ate.

More than 100 play­ers were pub­licly known to have con­tracted the coronaviru­s in the weeks be­fore and dur­ing sum­mer camp and the reg­u­lar sea­son. A vast ma­jor­ity were asymp­to­matic or had mild symp­toms. No telling how many more had it but were not re­vealed.

But many strug­gled. Car­di­nals pitcher Car­los Martinez, 29, was hos­pi­tal­ized. Phillies util­i­ty­man Scott Kingery de­tailed a weeks-long bat­tle with the virus that sapped him phys­i­cally as the sea­son be­gan, and White Sox in­fielder Yoan Mon­cada said he was not the same, ath­let­i­cally, weeks af­ter re­cov­ery.

Red Sox pitcher Ed­uardo Ro­driguez, who tested pos­i­tive at the start of sum­mer camp, has had his ca­reer side­tracked by my­ocardi­tis, the heart con­di­tion for which the long-term ef­fects are un­known for ath­letes re­cov­er­ing from COVID-19. If and when he shows up for 2021 spring train­ing, it will be an un­set­tling barom­e­ter for the long-term prog­no­sis of the pan­demic’s sur­vivors.

Then, there were the outbreaks, and the grim scenes that fol­lowed: 18 Mar­lins play­ers in­fected, many of them shipped from Philadel­phia to Mi­ami on sleeper busses while their team­mates were ma­rooned in a Philly ho­tel, quar­an­tin­ing and hop­ing to keep test­ing neg­a­tive.

Martinez’s Car­di­nals had 18 play­ers and staffers side­lined, caus­ing a 16-day

pause that has forced them to play 32 games in 27 days.

Lest we for­get, the men­tal toll was sig­nif­i­cant. Th­ese ath­letes play a para­dox­i­cal game, one that hum­bles ev­ery­one on a daily ba­sis yet re­quires an ar­ro­gance that makes them im­per­vi­ous to al­most any out­side forces.

In this year of COVID-19, we saw true hu­mil­ity, as play­ers saw team­mates suc­cumb to the virus, learned what it was like to tip­toe around it and felt the ex­haus­tion re­quired merely to stay healthy and do their jobs.

Many did so alone, sep­a­rated from their fam­i­lies to keep both par­ties pro­tected, along with their crea­ture-ofhabit rou­tines on the road and at home, mak­ing 60 games at times feel more gru­el­ing than 162.

“It’s been re­ally tough. I haven’t seen my kids, or my wife, in a long time,” says Yan­kees re­liever Zack Brit­ton, who has three chil­dren be­tween the ages of 1 and 5, and whose wife is ex­pect­ing a fourth child. “This has been harder than any 162-game sea­son I’ve played just from that as­pect. I un­der­stand a lot of peo­ple are go­ing through that.

“Not be­ing able to see them when I

get home for mul­ti­ple months now – that’s been the hard­est thing for me to nav­i­gate. You can only FaceTime so much. They’re not in­ter­ested in FaceTim­ing me for that long; they keep ask­ing when I’ll be home or when they can see me.”

In that sense, they were like many of us, still sep­a­rated from loved ones, if not im­me­di­ate fam­ily, and in some re­gards, stag­ing this sea­son did am­plify the im­pact of COVID-19 and the com­plex­i­ties around it.

The pan­demic has struck our po­lar­ized na­tion far harder than it should have, and a so­ci­ety ac­cus­tomed to win­ners and losers and bi­nary choices has, in many quar­ters, strug­gled to process the myr­iad out­comes of this coronaviru­s.

What did base­ball teach us?

Yes, it is in­cred­i­bly con­ta­gious. Ask a Mar­lin, or a Car­di­nal, about that.

Yes, it is to be taken se­ri­ously. Ask Ro­driguez or Martinez.

And yes, not all cases are cre­ated equal.

Like Kingery, At­lanta Braves first base­man Fred­die Free­man was felled by the virus, with sweat-filled nights and thoughts of a pos­si­ble trip to the ER. The saga played some part in Free­man’s team­mate, Nick Markakis, opt­ing out the early part of the sea­son.

Free­man, though, re­turned to the Braves on July 17, and he may walk away with his first Na­tional League MVP award, per­haps even a trip to the World Se­ries.

And the paths of hun­dreds of play­ers would have been in­ex­tri­ca­bly al­tered had the sea­son not com­menced. The world at large knows of Fer­nando Tatis. Shane Bieber is more than just a well­worn celebrity name in the tra­di­tion of Evan Lon­go­ria.

Luis Robert, Sixto Sanchez, Alec Bohm, Dono­van “Don­nie Bar­rels” Solano – all had the chance to au­thor nar­ra­tives and pro­vide fans some sem­blance of joy this sum­mer.

Lest we for­get, the three-day stag­gered pause in the name of so­cial jus­tice af­ter Kenosha, Wis­con­sin­po­lice shot Ja­cob Blake seven times in the back would not have been so im­pact­ful had the play­ers stayed home. In a year where racism, in­equal­ity and voter sup­pres­sion are at the fore­front, dozens of play­ers have uti­lized their plat­form to am­plify th­ese is­sues.

There’s still one more month to go, much of it played in non-se­cure play­off “bub­bles” in the ser­vice of big TV money and, hope­fully, even­tu­ally, the crown­ing of a cham­pion. Al­low­ing fans to wit­ness it may prove fool­hardy, pre­ma­ture and short-sighted.

The hard part is over, how­ever. Was it worth it?

“I signed up for it,” says Brit­ton. “I could have opted out of it; my wife felt like this was the right thing to do, and I knew it was go­ing to be hard.

“When we win a World Se­ries, it will make it all worth it.”

That’s the ul­ti­mate vic­tory. No­body will for­get the thou­sands of lit­tle ones along the way, along with the toll they ex­acted.

LU­CAS GI­OLITO BY AP

DALE ZANINE/USA TODAY SPORTS

At­lanta’s Fred­die Free­man is an MVP can­di­date.

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