- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 4, 2021

About 24 hours before the Washington Nationals were scheduled to take the field against the Atlanta Braves, general manager Mike Rizzo still didn’t know if that matchup would actually take place.

The Nationals’ 2021 season has been derailed before it began, remaining in a holding pattern after four positive coronavirus cases among players left an additional seven players in quarantine because they were deemed close contacts.

On Sunday night, though, Washington received an answer. The campaign will begin Tuesday, MLB announced, with Monday’s postponement marking the team’s fourth straight game nixed to begin the season.

The Nationals are on pace to begin the season Tuesday, though, because there were no new positive test results from the latest batch of coronavirus tests. And after pitchers were given the green light Saturday night to report one at a time to Nationals Park for bullpen sessions, all eligible personnel can participate in baseball activities on Monday, solving the major problem Rizzo saw.

Before the Nationals could play, Rizzo emphasized a need for practice time. Pitchers hadn’t thrown a competitive pitch in a week. Position players hadn’t participated in any sort of workout in the same span. Monday will provide that opportunity.

“Without working out a week prior to a game, to me, is something that we’re concerned about,” Rizzo said. “I think it makes a lot of sense, baseball player protection-wise, to have these guys go through their paces in a full workout before we take the field, and you go from zero to 100 miles per hour without working out for a very long period of time.”

Braves manager Brian Snitker said Sunday his team still prepared to play a series against the Nationals beginning Monday, and a Washington spokesperson said Atlanta is making the trip to D.C. as planned. Rizzo said the Nationals were preparing to play, too, but a decision late Sunday pushed back those plans. 

The Nationals’ coronavirus issues began Wednesday, when test results from March 29 returned indicating one player tested positive. Initial contact tracing efforts led to four players and one staff member entering quarantine.

Then three of the players in quarantine also tested positive later in the week, bringing the team’s total caseload to four. As more contact tracing efforts unfolded, more players wound up in quarantine. As of Sunday afternoon, the four players who tested positive remain in isolation. Seven other players are in quarantine, along with two staff members.

None of the 11 players will be available if the Nationals play early this week, and Rizzo said the majority of those players impacted would’ve been on the opening day squad. Rizzo said the four players who tested positive are “feeling much, much better,” with their symptoms — if they had experienced any — already subsiding.

When players can return from quarantine is more of a question mark. According to MLB protocols, close contacts must quarantine for seven days, display no symptoms and produce a negative test result on day five or later. 

There are multiple reasons why that seven-day quarantine could last longer, though. A team spokesperson said an inconclusive test that turns out to be negative could add time. If a player develops a symptom that is unrelated to the coronavirus, MLB could further hold out a player.

The start time for that seven-day quarantine can change, too, depending on subsequent positive tests among other close contacts. The result is a rather indefinable quarantine period, leaving Washington without players for an inexact period of time.

For the pitchers allowed individually back into the park for bullpens Saturday and Sunday, the goal was to replicate as close to a normal schedule as possible, considering the circumstances. Rizzo said that’s especially important for starters projected to pitch in the first four or five games, working through a normal weekly schedule to build up their arms. 

“It’s difficult to kind of bring the competitiveness into a bullpen session or a side session,” Rizzo said. “But that’s really all we have right now.” 

The position players haven’t had that much, even. Rizzo recalled how last year, when players were waiting for spring training to resume, some threw balls into mattresses or nets or set up tees to hit in their apartments. 

He figured his players were using similar creative approaches during this break to stay as sharp as possible.

“But nothing can simulate being on the field with live action,” Rizzo said.

Baseball activities at Nationals Park on Monday should help Washington prepare for its season opener, although the Nationals will still be short-handed to start the season.

At the very least, though, the Nationals know Tuesday will be opening day — even if that opening day was delayed several days due to the coronavirus.

“This is about the health of the players, our staff, their families,” Rizzo said. “We need to know that the process and spreading of this virus is over before we feel good about taking the field.”

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