Nationals restart workouts as testing concerns ripple through baseball


WASHINGTON – And then the Washington Nationals were back again, for a full squad morning workout that included grounders, pop flies – the sort of drills that feel from a much simpler time.

But Tuesday wasn’t simple for the Nationals. Right now, nothing is.

On Monday, Washington shut down Nationals Park amid concerns with baseball’s coronavirus testing model. Like teams around the sport, the Nationals had yet to receive results from testing on Friday. Like the Houston Astros and St. Louis Cardinals, they paused summer training until those results came. Then General Manager Mike Rizzo said in a statement: “Major League Baseball needs to work quickly to resolve issues with their process and their lab. Otherwise, Summer Camp and the 2020 season are at risk.”

That was still true Tuesday morning, when dozens of players squeezed onto the field. Missing from that group: Juan Soto, Howie Kendrick, Starlin Castro, Luis Garcia and Victor Robles. Teams are limited in what they can share about players who have either contracted coronavirus or are isolating as a result of contact tracing. When asked about those who were absent Tuesday, Rizzo told reporters that some of those players came into contact with someone who contracted coronavirus and were in quarantine while awaiting test results.

That description fit why Soto has not been at workouts, according to a person with knowledge of the 21-year-old outfielder’s situation. The Nationals had two players test positive during intake screening last week. Rizzo told reporters Tuesday that both are asymptomatic. Manager Dave Martinez has also said that those who traveled to Washington from out of the country – which includes a group from the Dominican Republic – have taken additional precautions.

All the moving parts underscore the risks and complexity of baseball’s restart process.

“I’m the caretaker for these guys,” Rizzo said when asked if he was confident MLB will fix the testing issues. “These are my guys, and their families are my families. The staff is my staff. I couldn’t live with myself if we went on haphazardly and didn’t abide by the rules that is in their best interest.

“We’re confident that after some early hiccups that the procedure is going to work smoother, we’ll get a little rhythm going and hopefully we can turn around these tests and then make prudent decisions about players’ health in our inner circle. But having the information makes that possible.”

With Rizzo watching from behind the batting cage, training for a 60-game season rolled along. The Nationals are scheduled to kick it off by hosting the New York Yankees on July 23. They have also slated exhibitions with the Philadelphia Phillies and Baltimore Orioles. The Phillies scrimmage, set for July 18 at Nationals Park, will be the first time Washington faces an opponent since spring training was suspended on March 12. And so Tuesday was another tentative step toward that date.

Coaches gave guidance through masks. Many players, including shortstop Trea Turner, covered their faces while hitting and fielding. One staffer wore medical gloves to make sure his skin did not touch the baseballs he ushered into a bucket.

Players have complimented how the team’s medical and clubhouse staffers have dealt with the pandemic. But doubts about the overall plan, and the weekend’s testing issues, still hung over the stadium.

“The faster they can do it, the better it is for everybody. I think it’s pretty self explanatory,” Turner said of testing Tuesday. “But the science can only do it so quickly. Maybe if MLB cleans up some things on their end or maybe gets some more testing sites, I think it will help just processing information faster.”

As of now, one lab in Salt Lake City is handling all test samples and results. The San Francisco Giants suspended training Tuesday because they are waiting for test results from the weekend. The Chicago Cubs had to push back workouts for the same reason. But the league and union are actively seeking an additional lab to improve the process, according to two people with knowledge of that effort. The crux of MLB’s health and safety protocol is every-other-day testing and rapid results, designed to lower the chance of coronavirus spreading through clubhouses.

That includes making snap decisions when a player, coach or staff member tests positive. Contact tracing is key and, as Rizzo explained Tuesday, the Nationals are casting a wide net when determining who is at risk or might have been exposed. The model cannot function without regular and reliable data.

Washington felt it did not have enough to practice Monday. That changed Tuesday, in a calculated reversal, leading to a fresh round of normalcy: Stephen Strasburg threw a bullpen session and followed it with a long jog along the warning track. Turner sprayed line drives into the outfield during batting practice. Carter Kieboom – their rookie infielder, the likely replacement for third baseman Anthony Rendon – took reps around the diamond.

And when the workout ended, right after noon, a grounds crew pulled out the tarp. It is a process synonymous with summer baseball in Washington. It typically leads fans onto the concourse, into their cars, anywhere to hide from the rain. But now it appeared to just be a drill beneath a light-blue sky.

They were working in trying circumstances. Everyone in baseball could relate.

“I sat in my office yesterday morning, and as we all know, I canceled practice,” Martinez said Tuesday. “And that’s because of how much I care about these guys. I want to keep them healthy, but also everybody else around us healthy.”