Thanks largely to vaccinations, Major League Baseball has avoided significant disruptions because of COVID-19 this season.
Yet the surge in cases nationwide - largely attributed to the delta variant - has afflicted two playoff contenders during their most crucial weeks.
The Boston Red Sox removed All-Star shortstop Xander Bogaerts from the second inning of their game at Tampa Bay after he tested positive for COVID-19 - their sixth player to test positive in the past week and seventh headed to the injured list.
Bogaerts had already contributed an RBI single in the game before manager Alex Cora motioned for him to leave the game.
— Bill Koch (@BillKoch25) August 31, 2021
The San Francisco Giants on Monday placed their next two scheduled starting pitchers - Alex Wood and Johnny Cueto - on the COVID-19 injured list just as they begin a challenging and pivotal seven-game stretch against the Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Dodgers.
Wood tested positive for COVID-19, the team confirmed, and is symptomatic. His loss forced the Giants - who have led the National League West since April 30 - into a bullpen game Monday against the Brewers, and Wood will also miss a scheduled start Saturday against the second-place Los Angeles Dodgers.
Cueto felt ill but had not tested positive, and on Tuesday was cleared to make his scheduled start.
Seven Giants relievers performed admirably in a 3-1 loss to the Brewers on Monday, but that all-hands effort will exact a toll over the course of this week. The Dodgers are now just 1 1/2 games behind the Giants.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox's tenuous hold on an American League wild-card spot took a hit after five players - including highly valuable utilityman Kiké Hernández - and two coaches tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days. Hernández's 4.4 Wins Above Replacement leads the Red Sox; starting pitcher Martín Perez, relief pitchers Matt Barnes and Hirokazu Sawamura and infielder Christian Arroyo also tested positive, while reliever Josh Taylor was placed on the COVID-19 IL after he was identified as a close contact of a positive case.
The depleted Red Sox lost the opener of a four-game series at first-place Tampa Bay and now are nine games behind the Rays. While a series victory could have stoked thoughts of contending for the division title, the Red Sox's greater concern is maintaining a hold on the No. 2 wild card slot.
Entering Tuesday night's game, their lead over Oakland is down to two games, with Toronto and Seattle 4 1/2 games back and the Blue Jays enjoying a very favorable schedule in the final month.
The Giants were among the first teams to reach an 85% vaccination rate, enabling their players and other Tier 1 personnel to enjoy relaxed COVID-19 protocols under MLB's guidance. The Red Sox are one of just seven teams that haven't reached the 85% vaccinated mark, a fact that has frustrated Cora, but Hernández was among the team's vaccinated players and suffered a breakthrough case.
He remains quarantined in Cleveland and will miss the entire Rays series and likely this weekend's series at Fenway Park against Cleveland. Bogaerts' timeline will definitely sideline him through the weekend and likely for next week's three-game rematch with the Rays at Fenway Park.
The delta variant surge has resulted in 4 million new COVID-19 cases in the past 28 days, according to Johns Hopkins University, and more than 1 million in the past week, according to NBC News.
“It’s not easy,” Cora told reporters after Monday's 6-1 loss at Tropicana Field. “But it’s not only happening here but all over the world. That’s the way I see it. And I’m just glad that the people that are positive feel OK.”
Just nine games have been postponed this season due to COVID-19 absences, seven of those in April, according to MLB. That contrasts with the 45 postponements over just 900 games in the 60-game 2020 season, which started in July and was staged before vaccines were approved for the general public.
Now, 86.4% of Tier 1 personnel across the majors are vaccinated, according to MLB, and some holdouts have opted to get vaccinated in recent weeks.
Yet the delta variant has proven disruptive, and the slightly less effective Johnson & Johnson vaccine - popular with athletes because of its one-shot regimen - may be showing its vulnerabilities. The New York Yankees, who largely received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in April, had six- and nine-person COVID-19 outbreaks in May and July, the latter resulting in a one-game postponement.
Cora and Kapler have both been vocal proponents of vaccination; with outbreaks on their respective clubs, both wore masks in the dugout Monday evening.
That may be the most trifling annoyance as they navigate the season's final five weeks. In their search for fresh arms, the Giant claimed left-hander Jose Quintana on waivers from the Angels. Quintana's 6.75 ERA would be the worst in the major leagues had he pitched enough innings to qualify.
But he may soon be pressed into service as an opener or a bulk reliever. The Giants and Red Sox will get some relief Tuesday, when rosters expand from 26 to 28.
The Giants would much rather have Wood, whose 10-4 record and 4.08 ERA and ability to pitch deep into games has been a significant boon this year.
Instead, they may sacrifice the division lead during a week the pandemic reared its head.
“I think it’s a real concern,” Kapler told reporters. “That doesn’t make us unique in any way. I know that a lot of clubs have dealt with the virus and dealt with it successfully. We’re just going to do our best under the circumstances, and we’ve done a really good job this season of adapting and adjusting."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Giants, Red Sox hit by COVID-19 cases during playoff race