2021 MLB Playoffs: How the Red Sox Overcame a COVID Outbreak and Made it to the SCLA

2021 MLB Playoffs: How the Red Sox Overcame a COVID Outbreak and Made it to the SCLA

On the last day of August, before the end of the second inning in a road game against the Tampa Bay Rays, Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora called his All-Star shortstop off the field.

“Alex never took me out,” Xander Bogaerts told ESPN in an interview last week. Bogaerts knew something was wrong. And with a COVID outbreak sweeping through the team’s clubhouse, it didn’t take long to figure out what it was.

“I knew right away,” he said. “‘M —, I have COVID.'”

The loss of Bogaerts dealt a major blow to Boston’s morale amid a difficult stretch of the season. In the same way that David Ortiz’s confident bravado and Dustin Pedroia’s sharp mindset once defined the Boston clubhouse, Bogaerts is the heart and soul of this team. Every day, he walks into the clubhouse with the same demeanor: a big smile, handing out handshakes and hugs to his teammates, always trying to find a silver lining, no matter how bleak things may get.

“I think that’s his biggest impact – bringing that positive energy every day,” said Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers. “Obviously, he has the experience and knowledge to help other players, but the energy, his vibe and his attitude, it rubs off on all of us.”

Red Sox baseball director Chaim Bloom learned of the news of Bogaerts’ diagnosis in the same way that many of the team’s fans did: when he saw his shortstop leave the Rays game on television.

Bogaerts was the seventh Red Sox player to go on the COVID disabled list in the previous five days. For Bloom, looking back home to Boston, that moment marked the low point of the season. Boston was in the middle of a playoff chase, clinging to a wild-card spot, hoping to contain waves from the New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays, Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics. And now his star shortstop, and the best player by half a game to that date, according to FanGraphs, was out for at least 10 days.

Panic ran through Bloom’s head.

“It was jarring,” said Bloom. “I was shocked.”

Between August 27 and September 12, a dozen Red Sox players and two team support staff tested positive for COVID-19, threatening Boston’s ability to field a team every night. , let alone compete for a playoff spot. The main members of the list, from Bogaerts to Kike Hernández to Chris Sale, sat for significant periods of time. It was hard to imagine then that the Red Sox would be fighting the Houston Astros in the American League Championship Series. But now, they look back on the period that nearly derailed their season as a formative moment that reset the team’s mindset and propelled them into the postseason.

“The outbreak, which no one had experienced in the course of their careers, we as a group had to come together,” said Bloom. “That really served us well down the stretch … They had to come together and make it happen.”

During the past weeks, team sources admit, the Red Sox did not strictly adhere to security protocol. Players walked around the cluhouse without masks, sitting at tables and playing cards. In early August, bench coach Will Venable tested positive for an infection. On August 27, Kike Hernandez, who is also vaccinated and identifies himself as “patient zero,” became the first Red Sox player to test positive and set off a chain reaction that would last for weeks.

Two days later, the team had a rain delay in Cleveland on Aug. 29, which sources describe as a key factor in the spread, with players huddled indoors for three hours. That day, second baseman Christian Arroyo tested positive, along with strength and conditioning coach Kiyoshi Momose. Relievers Martín Pérez, Matt Barnes and quality control coach Ramón Vázquez tested positive while reliever Josh Taylor was quarantined as a close contact on August 30, and reliever Hirokazu Sawamura and Bogaerts tested positive the next day.

The outbreak took a toll on Bogaerts mentally, impacting his play on the field even before he tested positive himself. In the five games between Hernandez and Bogaerts’ positive tests, the Red Sox shortstop struggled at the plate, hitting .222 (he hit .295 in the regular season) and striking out eight times in 18 plate appearances.

“It was stressing me out a lot,” Bogaerts said. “We had a lot of things with COVID. I wasn’t playing well for a while.”

The Red Sox updated their COVID protocols. Masking around the team increased, and meetings moved from the clubs to the stands. The batting practice groups got smaller. The tests were carried out daily. But despite the greatest precautions, the virus continued to spread.

September 1 brought a positive test for utility Yairo Muñoz, and outfielder Jarren Duran hit the COVID list on September 3. Pitcher Nick Pivetta and utility Danny Santana followed on Sept. 5, then Sale, who also tested positive during the offseason. – and Jonathan Arauz on September 10. Reliever Phillips Valdez was the twelfth and last player to test positive, on Sept. 12.

On the day Hernandez tested positive, Boston was 74-56, third in the AL East behind the Yankees. The Red Sox had already been struggling, slowly descending from their position at the top of the AL East, where they had spent most of the first half of the season.

“I was worried,” Bogaerts said. “A lot of our regulars were out, me, Kike, a lot of the regulars were out. We were hoping none of the other guys like Devers would come out because it wouldn’t have been nice.”

The time in quarantine forced Bogaerts to sit alone with his thoughts.

“The hardest part was the first few days,” Bogaerts said in an interview in early September. “You’re looking at day one, day two, I have about eight or nine more left. Those are the difficult ones. The initial ones. Once you start getting to day seven or eight, you start feeling anxious. You can’t wait to get back.” .

Over the next several weeks, Boston shuffled its roster to compensate the 12 players who made the COVID roster, with mixed results. Jonathan Araúz, who had played just 14 games prior to Aug. 17, filled the midfield spots, doubling his total of games between Aug. 17 and Sept. 8. Boston claimed utility Taylor Motter (6/2 and three runs scored in three games with the Red Sox) off the Colorado Rockies waivers, and signed Jose Iglesias (.356 / .406 / .508 in 23 games) after he was released by the Los Angeles Angels.

The team rounded out the pitching staff with players including Brad Peacock (5.1 innings pitched, nine runs allowed), Michael Feliz (5.1 innings, two runs allowed), Connor Seabold (three innings, two runs allowed in one game) and John Schreiber ( three innings, one run allowed).

With a full roster of replacements and no margin for error in an increasingly tight wild-card race, Boston continued with a next-man-standing mentality – a mentality that Cora said boosted the team’s ability to rack up a leading number. in the league of victories coming from behind.

“Those guys did really well,” Bogaerts said. “They’re not guys who are going to hit home runs and be as productive as regular players, but they put down their touches and made the plays defensively and stepped up and helped balance it out.”

After posting a 15-18 record in the 33 games before Hernandez went on the disabled list, the Red Sox ended the season 19-14, a month that included a superstitious winning streak in yellow City Connect uniforms. . They relied on one of the best offenses in the league as they waited for results from a doubling but not breaking pitching staff, eventually landing a wild-card spot on the final day of the regular season.

For Bloom, the outbreak required the team to stay focused amid the chaos.

“The stories are easy to write in hindsight,” said Bloom. “There were a lot of points in late September where they could have folded the tent and they didn’t. Some of it has to do with coming together and making it happen after that low point in St. Pete. And finding a way, some of That built resilience and the ability to go ahead and take a few hits and move on. “

When Bogaerts returned from the COVID roster, he thrived as the offensive anchor of Boston’s lineup, hitting .271 / .393 / .443 with three home runs in 20 games. It’s been more of the same in the playoffs, where he hit a home run in the Red Sox wild-card game win against the Yankees and hit .333 with another home run against the Rays in the American League Division Series.

Bogaerts said the forced time out gave him a fresh perspective. “It helped me relax a bit,” he said. “It made me appreciate the game so much more.”

Looking back, Cora said that Bogaerts’ trip to COVID IL hit a reset button for him and possibly the entire Red Sox season.

“It was a difficult day,” Cora said. “In this business, it’s 162 games and as difficult as it was, we had to turn the page … Xander was out for 10 days, but after that, he rebooted, recharged, and finished strong. We’re in the business of seeing the glass always half full “.

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