“Not only do we have to compete on the field, but it’s almost like we’ve got to compete off the field, too,” Martinez said Tuesday afternoon, a few hours before a listless 5-1 loss to the Blue Jays. Starlin Castro made two costly errors at second base and the Nationals registered just one hit after the third, falling to 1-4. “We have to follow all the protocols. I’m constantly on the players to wear masks, washing hands. We’re doing all these things to try to stay safe.
“But it's tough. We're in tough times. We're trying to play through a pandemic.”
That reality continues to crash through the sport. The Marlins were temporarily shut down because up to 15 players and two coaches have tested positive for the virus. The Nationals were scheduled to play in Miami this weekend, took a stand and never had to go any further. In one news release Tuesday, MLB shelved the Marlins and the Philadelphia Phillies and set up a matchup between the New York Yankees and Orioles in Baltimore.
The Nationals keep finding themselves at the center of this rocky restart. Ryan Zimmerman, Joe Ross and Welington Castillo opted out before summer training began. They had to cancel an early workout after a lag in test results from the MLB-contracted lab in suburban Salt Lake City. They actively considered alternate sites before the District tweaked local quarantine regulations for their players, coaches and staff. They had their first trip changed when the Canadian government told the Blue Jays they couldn’t play in Toronto. And on Opening Day, star left fielder Juan Soto was placed on the Covid-19 Related Injured List after testing positive.
Soto received his second lab-confirmed negative result Tuesday and is now waiting for both MLB and the city to clear him. But as it goes in 2020, one obstacle replaced another. A fraught trip to Miami, a still-raging coronavirus hot spot, was next on Washington’s to-do list.
Martinez heard rumblings that his players were uneasy. That’s why he called a team meeting Monday, asking those uncomfortable to raise their hands. All but one did, setting Martinez and Rizzo into motion. Martinez doesn’t know if this action pushed MLB to reconsider. He does, however, believe it was important for the players to speak up.
“It had nothing to do with the Miami Marlins. It was all about Miami and the state of Florida, this pandemic,” Martinez said before adding that he will soon determine a weekend workout plan with his coaches. “They didn’t feel safe.”
On his way into work Tuesday, Martinez was stopped by a D.C. police officer. The surrounding area quickly filled with squad cars. Red and blue lights reflected against the stadium. There was a reported shooting on the 100 block of O Street SE at 12:50 p.m., later confirmed as a suicide.
Players were told to stay in their hotel rooms and nearby apartments. Then their group texts lit up with a question that has become all too common in the past few weeks: What’s going on?
“I’ve been trying to come to the ballpark and just enjoy being here and enjoy the time we have,” Nationals shortstop Trea Turner said after the loss. “Because you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know when you show up that day if anybody is going to test positive, nobody, if one team is going good or bad. I think it’s a lot up in the air.”
Martinez has admitted to losing a lot of sleep this month. He often wakes up thinking about the latest coronavirus test results. He wondered Monday if, given the Marlins situation, he’d have more players hang it up for the season.
So far, no other players or coaches have. Soto’s absence aside, Martinez’s lineup Tuesday was filled as expected. The Blue Jays leaped ahead on a solo shot from Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who was aided by Victor Robles and Emilio Bonifacio colliding along the left field wall. Robles had the ball in his webbing before his glove fell off and over the fence. Castro later made two mistakes at second that directly led to three runs.
The offense was quiet other than Adam Eaton’s RBI single in the third. It went hitless in the fourth, fifth, sixth, seven and eighth. A slight rally in the ninth, after Turner led off with a double, never scratched the scoreboard. Martinez was frustrated with the third consecutive loss, saying, “The overall play, the defense, the base-running, we have to clean that up.”
But that doesn’t mean Martinez isn’t conflicted. An emotional Monday news conference included a bit of inexact math: His concern level had risen from an eight to a 12, he admitted, even while focusing on the next game plan. He reasoned that the players have families, that he has a family, and they’re all risking their health.
The manager wants everyone to know that. And as Tuesday faded, with this tiny corner of the world paused for the sake of baseball, it only felt more true.
“I revert back to why we stopped playing in March,” Martinez said, addressing whether he thought any of this is a good idea. “If you think about it, we stopped playing because of the pandemic.
“So, it’s tough. Here we are in the middle of a pandemic and we are doing the best we can to keep these guys safe and healthy and actually play baseball.”