The challenges of playing a baseball season – even one with a shortened schedule and 101 pages of guidelines – became evident again Saturday, when the Phillies kept ace pitcher Aaron Nola and two other players away from summer camp because of COVID-19 protocols.
Nola, outfielder Adam Haseley, and catcher Christian Bethancourt are not with the team because they either tested positive for the virus, showed symptoms, came in contact with an infected person, or have missing or inconclusive test results a source said. They are not on the COVID-19 injured list, but they could be added to the list in the future.
Phillies manager Joe Girardi declined to explain after Saturday’s workout – the second day of camp in South Philadelphia – why the players were absent. Major League Baseball has instructed teams not to disclose whether a player is placed on the COVID-19 list.
“We’re trying to work our way through that,” Girardi said about Nola’s absence.
A player can be placed on the COVID-19 list when he tests positive for coronavirus, shows symptoms, or comes in contact with an infected person. When he tests positive, the player must self-quarantine for two weeks and record consecutive negative tests before returning.
The Phillies have four players on the COVID-19 list. Scott Kingery, Tommy Hunter, Hector Neris, and Ranger Suarez were added a day before camp started. Two weeks ago, the Phillies said seven players tested positive for coronavirus following an outbreak at the team’s complex in Clearwater, Fla. They now have seven players missing from camp because of COVID-19.
“Due to a medical condition, we’re trying to work through it and get him here,” Girardi said about Haseley.
The 60-game regular season is less than three weeks away, and the Phillies are without their top pitcher (Nola), starting center fielder (Haseley ) and starting second baseman (Kingery), their closer (Neris), the lone major-league free-agent (Hunter) signed to their bullpen, and a fifth-starter candidate (Suarez). And no one is able to offer a timetable for their return or explain why they’re missing.
“I think there’s a lot of concern, and I think that’s why we continue to educate as much as we can,” Girardi said of the virus. “We continue to test every other day, there’s temperature checks a number of times during the day. It’s players being socially responsible to themselves, to the people around them, and to their teammates.
“If you have a symptom, don’t just assume ‘Ah, I have a headache today. It’s normal,’ or, ‘I’m sneezing more than normal today. It’s my allergies.’ You have to be completely honest in all of these questionnaires that we fill out, or you jeopardize everyone in the room. It is a concern, yes.”
Girardi said earlier in the week that a positive test could cost a player three weeks, but Phillies pitcher Cole Irvin said Saturday that a pitcher would need double that time before returning.
“I’ve been talking to guys, and I think it’s a six-week downtime to be fully ready back,” Irvin said. “If you think about it – two weeks of quarantine, two weeks of catch play, two weeks of bullpen or whatever it might be to get yourself back and ready. There’s the season.”
If a player missed six weeks of the season, he would miss nearly 60% of the team’s 60 games. In the ballpark, the Phillies are following strict protocols. Players have specific times to report, train in small groups, stretch on the stadium concourse, wear masks when they’re not on the field, eat their meals away from the clubhouse, and limit physical contact.
There’s no high-fives or spitting. There are no saunas or hot tubs. Half of the players train at FDR Park and take a shuttle across Broad Street, sitting a row apart from each other.
The protocols are not guaranteed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. General manager Matt Klentak said the team’s policies in Clearwater were strict enough to frustrate players, yet the virus still spread. But it is what happens away from the ballpark – when players and staff are on their own – that could lead to another outbreak.
“It takes all of us as a unit to be able to be ready, and a lot of the guys are taking it seriously, and it’s really encouraging,” Irvin said. “Obviously, we’ve had a few more cases than some other teams, but we all learned from that. and you’re seeing it day to day in the operations here. ...
“All of us have to be accountable, not just for ourselves, but I think for each other, too. I was talking to Vince Velasquez, and he and I are making sure that we are accountable to each other, among other guys. We’re all talking about it. We don’t even know if we should go and watch fireworks, so that’s where we’re at.”
Nola was scheduled to start for the Phillies on opening day, which will be July 23 or 24. He has started the last two season openers and is one of the National League’s elite starting pitchers. If the Phillies are to reach the postseason, Nola will be relied on to play a big part. Now, his status – and that of six teammates – remains uncertain.
Zack Wheeler, the pitcher signed this offseason to team up with Nola at the top of the rotation, pitched a bullpen session Saturday afternoon and impressive. If Nola is not ready for the start of the season, Wheeler would be next in line to pitch for the Phillies on opening day.
But reaching that first game seems to become more challenging each day.
“Here’s where the responsibility falls on us,” Girardi said. “For example, I go to my hotel room, and I come to the ballpark. Those are the only two things that I do. All my meals basically come from here. I don’t go out, and that’s what we have to do as players, and if we’re able to do that, and we’re getting tested every other day, hopefully we’re able to quarantine that person very quickly.
“But my concern was in the beginning of this, when people were coming from all kind of different places, and there would probably be people who didn’t have symptoms but were positive, were asymptomatic. But once we kind of get in our routines I actually thought it would be more controllable than when we were all in different places.”