Sports

Juan Soto’s Positive Test Casts Shadow on Yankees-Nationals Opener

WASHINGTON — Aaron Judge, the Yankees’ star outfielder, had been waiting for this day for nine months. Even this week, he insisted the Yankees’ season-ending loss to the Houston Astros in Game 6 of last year’s American League Championship Series still bothered him.

“Just remember this feeling, remember this silence, this emptiness, and just use it as fuel,” Judge said in his address to the team in a somber clubhouse following the loss last October. He added later, “You don’t want this feeling again. What can we do different to prepare the right way so that outcome doesn’t happen?”

Judge and his teammates could not have predicted at the time that their preparations would be interrupted by a pandemic, with players forced to train on their own for weeks before returning for an unprecedented summer training camp and an opening day in July. Still, despite the four-month delay and the potential randomness that awaits in a 60-game regular season or perhaps expanded playoffs, the Yankees’ goal is, once again the same: To win a championship and end a title drought that extends to 2009 — an eternity in the Yankees’ world.

“I feel like in spring training and now in summer camp, I’m witnessing that fire burning strongly with these guys,” Manager Aaron Boone said.

But hours before the Yankees were set to face the Washington Nationals for the season’s opening game Thursday night, baseball received a stark reminder of the precariousness of playing amid the coronavirus pandemic: Juan Soto, the 21-year-old Nationals’ star outfielder, tested positive for the virus, on a sample collected on Tuesday, and was held out of Washington’s opening day lineup. He must record two negative tests at least 24 hours apart before he can return.

Soto was asymptomatic, Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo told reporters, and no other players were unavailable to take the field on Thursday after contact tracing had been conducted. But Nationals Manager Dave Martinez was still leery: He told reporters before the game that those who had the closest contact with Soto were tested on Thursday morning and will be again on Friday.

“I’m a little bit more concerned now until we get our next results back and everybody tests negative,” he said.

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Updated 2020-07-23T10:30:23.915Z

Boone said he was shocked to hear Soto had tested positive. He reminded some Yankees players and coaches to be even more careful about being near their Nationals’ counterparts before the game. But he said there was “no hesitation” about continuing with the game.

“We knew what we signed up for and we knew this was going to be a reality on given days,” he said. “We’re doing a lot to be safe, but we understand that there are some risks that go with that.”

The Yankees have had cases in their own ranks, as well: The star infielder D.J. LeMahieu and pitcher Luis Cessa recently rejoined the team after a few weeks away because of positive tests, and closer Aroldis Chapman remains out. While M.L.B. implemented extensive health and safety protocols with every-other-day testing for players and coaches, and saw relatively few cases during summer workouts, the true test will come as teams begin traveling — albeit less than before — including into hot spots like Florida, Georgia and Texas.

“There’s definitely some unknown,” Yankees pitcher J.A. Happ said. “I think players across the league, specifically our team, are prepared to try to do what it takes to be as safe as possible.”

ImageYankees starter Gerrit Cole arrived at Nationals Park with a mask on Thursday ahead of the season opener. 
Credit…Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

The absences of one of the game’s top young sluggers, in Soto, and one of its best relievers, in Chapman, in the season opener only underscored the bizarre nature of the 2020 campaign. Fans will be absent, at least to start the season, and any results and records may always be seen as requiring an asterisk in the record books because of the shortened schedule. But that doesn’t make the possible prize any less sweeter to the Yankees.

“There is only going to be only one coronavirus World Series champion,” Yankees starter Gerrit Cole said earlier this month. “I don’t see why you wouldn’t want to take that trophy home.”

The Yankees have many reasons to be confident. They took a 103-win team and added to it in big and small ways. Chief among them: lavishing $324 million on Cole, arguably the best pitcher in baseball.

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They also hired a new catching coach, whom they hope will further improve Gary Sanchez’s defense, and a new pitching coach, whom they believe will modernize their instruction. They overhauled their health and performance staff, bringing in new experts after setting a major league record last season with 30 players landing on the injured list.

“That’s what separates the good teams from great teams: the little things,” Judge said, adding later, “As a team, we took that to heart and made a lot of changes and improvements.”

The Yankees benefited from the hiatus perhaps more than any other team in baseball on the roster front, with several players recovering from existing injuries. That may prove critical in an abbreviated season in which every game counts nearly three times as much as usual.

“A smaller sample size creates more opportunity for a good team to be bad and a bad team to be good,” General Manager Brian Cashman said.

If the season had started as originally planned in late March, the Yankees would have been without pitchers James Paxton (back surgery) and Luis Severino (Tommy John surgery), and outfielders Judge (broken rib), Giancarlo Stanton (calf strain) and Aaron Hicks (Tommy John surgery).

All except Severino are on the opening day roster, an accomplishment for a team that had Judge, Hicks and Stanton in the same lineup only five times last year, including the playoffs. Despite those many absences, the Yankees fell one home run shy of the Minnesota Twins, who set a new major league record.

The lineup is “unreal and unmatched in the league,” Stanton said, “if we can stay all out there.”

That is a task that, as made evident Thursday afternoon, will be even more complicated than ever as baseball carries on amid a pandemic.

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