Soto, 21, must receive back-to-back negative test results confirmed by a lab before returning to play, according to MLB’s protocol. Rizzo told reporters Thursday afternoon that, as of then, no other players or coaches will have to self-isolate after the Nationals conducted thorough contact tracing. Soto underwent multiple instant-result coronavirus tests Thursday and received all negative results, according to multiple people with knowledge of the situation.
Those tests, which were both saliva and nasal swabs, were conducted by the Nationals. The results were not lab confirmed and will not factor into how and when Soto is cleared to play. Teams are permitted to serve as a point-of-care option when rapid testing is necessary, such as when trying to determine whether a result is a false positive. Soto’s initial positive test was first reported by ESPN.
“Next man up. Let’s go,” Rizzo said when asked what it is like to suddenly lose a key player so close to the start of the season. “We have to make our roster move. We have to contact everybody we have to contact. Of course, our first priority is to take care of Juan and his family, and then we go in our baseball mode.”
“Unfortunately it hit us, and it hit us at a bad time: Opening Day,” said Manager Dave Martinez, who added that Soto tested negative four times before the positive result. “I know Juan was looking forward to being out there today with his teammates. I just wish him well and that he gets back as soon as possible. We’re going to miss him.”
The Nationals placed Soto on the covid-19 injured list, which means he will not count against their 40-man roster or 60-player club pool limits. Soto has had a tough start to the 2020 season; he had to self-isolate for 14 days after flying from the Dominican Republic to the United States on July 1. Soto and five other Nationals rode on one of two MLB-chartered flights, then flew from Miami to Newark, then from Newark to Washington.
From there, Soto did not test positive during intake screening July 2. But multiple players from the flights tested positive — including one of Soto’s teammates — which led to two weeks of isolation in a hotel by the ballpark, as mandated by the District. The District has since relaxed those regulations for the Nationals, allowing players and coaches to go to and from work while isolating.
Soto, though, will isolate until he tests negative in back-to-back tests that are at least 24 hours apart. With MLB testing players, coaches and staff every other day, Soto’s last official negative result came Tuesday from a saliva sample collected Sunday. Since, he worked out at Nationals Park, played in an exhibition at Camden Yards in Baltimore, played in another exhibition in Washington, then worked out in Washington again Wednesday. Four full days passed between Soto’s test that produced a negative result and the news of his positive result.
Martinez expressed uneasiness about the Nationals’ pending test results. Rizzo’s assertion that no other players or coaches had tested positive as of Thursday afternoon does not account for tests conducted Thursday morning, which, at the earliest, would come back late Friday night. Results have typically been turned around within 48 hours since the sport dealt with a host of lag issues in early July.
Rizzo said the Nationals are “casting a wide net” with contact tracing. Martinez mentioned that those who were closer to Soto in recent days could be tested again Friday, but that wasn’t definite. It all cast long shadows of doubt over Washington as first pitch neared.
“I’m looking forward to getting those results back, and hopefully everybody comes back negative,” Martinez said. “That, to me, will reassure that everybody is good. But until we get those tests back, we don’t really know where we’re really at.”
The Nationals will carry five outfielders on their 30-man roster to start the season: expected starters Victor Robles and Adam Eaton, plus reserves Michael A. Taylor, Andrew Stevenson and Emilio Bonifacio. Stevenson, who regularly played left field in summer training, started in Soto’s place Thursday. Martinez noted that could change this weekend, and Taylor’s versatility makes him a fit at any of the three outfield spots.
But the absence of Soto goes way beyond results or lineup strength. It is a reminder of the riskiness of what MLB is attempting, just before a 60-game season begins.
“It’s a challenge, but we’ve faced challenges before,” Rizzo said. “We like the depth that we have on this roster. We like the players that are going to fill in for him. They’re not going to replace Soto, but we’re going to have to win games in a different way.”
“It stinks, but we are in a pandemic. We are trying to play through it,” Martinez added. “Like I tell the guys, you just have to be very, very careful. That’s all. I mean, it crushed me when I heard he had contracted it. But it would have crushed me if any other guy on this team would have gotten it as well.”
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