MLB’s Closing Weekend Finds COVID-Hit Teams Mulling ‘What If’

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In the end, COVID-19 could cost the Boston Red Sox a shot at the playoffs.

One of seven Major League Baseball teams failing to reach the 85% plateau of players vaccinated for the coronavirus, the pandemic raced through their clubhouse earlier this month like a line drive, hopping toward the left field corner.

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Unlike the abbreviated 60-game 2020 season, when 47 games were postponed because of the pandemic, the games were mostly played without delay this season as a full slate of 162 for each of the 30 clubs. The toll of COVID for the Red Sox was the loss of game-time from crucial players, just when the season reached its most critical juncture, translating to precious wins and defeats.

Eighteen of their players missed games because of COVID, including such stars as Chris Sale, Xander Bogaerts, Kiki Hernandez and Nick Pivetta.

With only a weekend left in the regular season, the Red Sox are in a heated race for the American League’s two Wild Card berths with three other teams—the New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners. Each of those teams has also been affected in some way by COVID.

“The front office, they deal with it, and I just listen and go from there,” manager Alex Cora said as the Red Sox were in the throes of the spread. “It’s a personal choice, and we are where we’re at percentage-wise. Everybody knows it. And we can’t hide that fact. It just happened now, and we’ve got to keep going.”

To be sure, Boston wasn’t even supposed to contend, coming off a last place 24-36 season in 2020. The team hasn’t made the playoffs two years in a row after winning the 2018 World Series in five games over the Los Angeles Dodgers. Yet this year’s Red Sox were in first place by a half a game on July 30. COVID then began to rear its ugly head.

The Red Sox are far from the only team heavily impacted. The Mariners, Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets—all sitting below the league’s herd immunity threshold—have also had their playoff chances affected, losing key games due to sick players.

The Chicago Cubs, Kansas City Royals and Arizona Diamondbacks are the other three clubs that failed to reach 85%. Although those teams had terrible seasons for their own baseball-related reasons, the fact that they had to play under tougher league protocols because of lower vaccination rates couldn’t have helped the situation.

“It’s presented some challenges for us,” said Torey Lovullo, who survived Arizona’s 109-loss season and will return for at least next year as D-backs manager. “We don’t have the relaxed protocols that most other teams do. I’m well aware that we came very close to the 85%, and I respect the decision that everybody made individually.

“I wish we were 100% vaccinated, and we didn’t have to face some of the issues with illness. But that’s just not the case.”

Cora and Lovullo are both fully vaccinated.

Other teams that are above 85% have also been hit hard by the coronavirus even as fans, who were generally vaccinated, returned to the ballpark at mostly full capacity by the middle of June.

The Washington Nationals had their first four games postponed by an extensive COVID outbreak, and another in July when a second surge hit. They instituted mandatory vaccinations for all executive personnel. Bob Boone, a team vice president, resigned during the process. The Nats are in last place in the National League East with 94 losses.

The Yankees were one of the first teams to announce, in early April, they’d reached the 85% threshold, taking the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but they went through at least two bouts during the season, when the Delta variant ravaged the clubhouse. Key players like Aaron Judge, Gleyber Torres, Gerrit Cole, Gary Sanchez and Anthony Rizzo missed substantial time on MLB’s COVID list.

Third base coach Phil Nevin, who has asthma, became sick despite being vaccinated; he suffered numerous infections, was hospitalized for weeks, and missed a month on the field.

“They’re convinced that the vaccine kept the infection, the COVID, so to speak, out of my lungs,” he said upon his return.

Rizzo was not vaccinated and made that clear when he was still with the Cubs prior to his trade to New York at the July 30 deadline. He fell ill about a week after he came to the Yankees, who are hanging on to an AL Wild Card spot as they conclude the season playing the AL East-winning Tampa Bay Rays this weekend at Yankee Stadium.

Now, the Yankees are on the verge of barely making the playoffs.

“As I’ve said all year even as we’ve gone through these valleys, we’re a confident group,” said Yanks manager Aaron Boone, whose contract is expiring and job is clearly on the line if the club doesn’t play in the postseason. “Even during the worst of times I’ve felt this club is capable.”

The vagabond Toronto Blue Jays are almost fully vaccinated and have been mostly healthy. But they were on the road for 670 days, forced to spend the entire 2020 season playing home games in Buffalo because of severe restrictions at the Canadian border.

During this full 162-game season, they were forced to play home games at their spring training site in Dunedin, Fla., and again in Buffalo before border restrictions were relaxed, and the Blue Jays were finally able to return to Rogers Centre on July 30. At that date, they evenly split their first 44 “home” games and were 51-48 overall. They are 37-23 since.

Unlike last year, when postseason games were played in front of limited or no crowds, this year’s playoffs are back in home parks at full capacity. They follow a regular season in which teams had to bring players up from the minors to replace those stricken by COVID.

Those teams heading into the playoffs have survived all that, said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, whose defending-champion club is in a dogfight with the San Francisco Giants to win the National League West and avoid next Wednesday’s NL Wild Card Game against the red-hot St. Louis Cardinals. The Giants and Dodgers have each won more than 100 games and haven’t been hit hard by COVID.

“Now it’s about winning the World Series,” Roberts said. “No one’s going to be 100%. And there’s an adrenalin part of it. Whatever it takes. This is the cost of playing for a championship.”