Cardinals Return With a New Appreciation for a Fragile Season

For more than two weeks, the baseball season went on without the St. Louis Cardinals. The club’s outbreak of 18 coronavirus cases — including 10 players — caused 15 postponements in a row. While the Cardinals waited, their rivals, the Chicago Cubs, seemed to win every day. There was no sense in looking at the standings.

“Why would I?” said John Mozeliak, St. Louis’ president of baseball operations. “I just have to worry about the Cardinals. I don’t want to see someone that’s 12-3 or something. I know it exists, but just getting back to the field — that’s all I’ve been really trying to deal with.”

The day finally arrived on Saturday with a doubleheader victory over the White Sox. The Cardinals’ traveling party drove rental cars — 41 in all — from St. Louis to Chicago on Friday, dropping them off at Guaranteed Rate Field on Saturday morning. Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals’ 38-year-old Game 1 starter, had never driven himself to a road game in the majors before.

The last time he did it at all, he said, was 20 years ago, from Orlando to Danville, Va., for his first start in the rookie-level Appalachian League. Saturday’s doubleheader felt like summer ball as an amateur, he added; all that was missing was his mom bringing orange slices between games.

“Isn’t it crazy what we just did?” said outfielder Tyler O’Neill, who homered in the second game, a 6-3 Cardinals win. “I think the craziest thing is getting no text message this morning saying we’re postponed.”

Elsewhere on Saturday, other players did. The Cincinnati Reds and the Pittsburgh Pirates learned that their scheduled games on Saturday and Sunday had been postponed because a member of the Reds had tested positive for the virus. Every day for the last three weeks, then, Major League Baseball has had at least one postponement because of the virus.

ImageTyler O’Neill hit a two-run homer in the second game of the doubleheader on Saturday.
Credit…Mike Dinovo/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

As a whole, very few major leaguers are testing positive. M.L.B. announced Friday that out of 12,301 tests conducted last week, there had been only four positives, all from the Cardinals. But the Reds news offered a stark reminder of the challenges that the Cardinals — and before them the Miami Marlins, who had 20 positive cases and missed a week of games — have endured.

“My hope is people realize it can happen to anybody,” Mozeliak said. “I really think the success of Major League Baseball is following tight protocols, following the three things we all hear about: washing our hands, wearing masks, social distancing. But it’s also going to be about luck — like, who do you cross paths with? So, yes, can you create bad luck by going to places you shouldn’t, of course. But that’s why you have protocols.”

Two Cleveland Indians pitchers, Mike Clevinger and Zach Plesac, violated those protocols after a game in Chicago on Aug. 8, leaving the team hotel to socialize with friends. Their teammates have been sharply critical of that decision, and neither pitcher has yet been welcomed back to the active roster — both were sent on Friday to the team’s alternate training site for reserve players.

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Mozeliak said the Cardinals had traced their outbreak to a series last month in Minnesota, where some players sat close together in cramped rooms at the ballpark, likely without masks, without knowing they had the virus. He said the team had been vigorously promoting social distancing; if players want to eat at home games, they must do so in the empty stands or alone at a table on the concourse level where fans would normally congregate.

“I don’t think you’ll have anybody touch anybody on the field the rest of the year,” Manager Mike Shildt said. “I think our dugouts will be even more sterile. We’re going to continue to do what we’ve done in the past but limit our exposure in the clubhouse. We’re going to show up later. Every single meeting we do, pretty much, will be outside. It’s going to be very little time spent in the ballpark.”

The Cardinals, who won the National League Central last season, had played only five games before their outbreak. Their roster is missing two mainstays — catcher Yadier Molina and shortstop Paul DeJong, who are on the Covid-19 injured list — and the team faced a packed schedule of 53 games in 44 days starting with their victories on Saturday.

Credit…Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

Those games lasted just seven innings apiece, a new feature for doubleheaders in 2020, intended to keep teams from overly taxing their rosters. The Cardinals have three more doubleheaders this month and seven in September; they are now scheduled for 58 games overall this season, just shy of the 60 other teams will play.

“If you went around and polled the audience, everybody’s very thankful for these seven-inning contests with how many games we’re fixing to have to play in only a short amount of time,” Wainwright said. “Seven innings is weird, but also very appreciated.”

Mozeliak said the format should help the Cardinals make the best of things; with 22 shortened games as part of doubleheaders — and two other games removed from the schedule — the club had 62 innings trimmed from its slate. Even so, no team has ever had to cram so many games into so few days.

“Do I think it’s doable? Yes,” Mozeliak said. “Do I think it’s daunting? Yes. Am I glad we get the opportunity to do it? Yes.”

After the first game on Saturday, a 5-1 St. Louis win, Wainwright greeted teammates in the clubhouse with a bow — not a hug, a high five, or even an elbow bump. He has experienced the ultimate in baseball euphoria, a leaping embrace with Molina after the final out of the World Series in 2006. If the Cardinals win this time, the celebration may look different, but the meaning will resonate.

“Just with everything going on, whoever wins the World Series — hopefully it’s us — I think there’s going to be a real sense of accomplishment there,” Wainwright said. “I certainly don’t feel like any players will feel like there should be an asterisk next to anything. We’re working hard; we’re doing everything we can possibly do to be ready to play. What we’re about to have to go through — if we endure and win this thing, it’s going to be a really special story.”

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