TORONTO – In theory, Matt Shoemaker was supposed to spend his Saturday afternoon on the mound at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.
Although if we’re being precise, the start was really supposed to take place on Friday. And the game – a Blue Jays home date – would ideally have happened in Toronto, or maybe Pittsburgh or even Baltimore. But regardless of exactly when or where, Shoemaker was hoping to pitch somewhere.
Instead, he found himself in Washington working out at Nationals Park Saturday after the Blue Jays’ weekend games against the Phillies were postponed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. He’s now preparing to start Tuesday’s game against the Braves, but after a wild few days across baseball, it’s clear there are no guarantees anymore.
“Hectic to say the least,” Shoemaker said of his last 72 hours. “Decisions about whether we play games or not, whether they’re postponed are out of our control, so we’ve just got to roll with it day by day. It’s frustrating to say the least, but we’re just staying mentally ready.”
The Blue Jays didn’t report any new COVID-19 cases Saturday, but their uncertain existence continued as news of positive tests, postponements and opt-outs circulated on a busy afternoon for MLB.
Two Cardinals players tested positive for COVID-19, according to the league, and a third may be positive as well based on results from rapid testing. That led to the postponement of Saturday’s Cardinals-Brewers game and meant only 24 of 30 teams would play for the second consecutive day. Soon after the game was postponed, Brewers centre fielder Lorenzo Cain announced his decision to opt out of the season altogether.
Later in the afternoon, commissioner Rob Manfred stated his intention to continue playing even though players continue positive and postponements are throwing the whole schedule into disarray.
“We are playing,” Manfred told ESPN. “The players need to be better, but I am not a quitter in general and there is no reason to quit now. We have had to be fluid, but it is manageable.”
For their part, the Blue Jays have regular team-wide discussions about the importance of limiting contact with the outside world. That means more meals at the team hotel, for example – “just those little things that add up to minimizing risk,” as Shoemaker put it.
Given the COVID-19 numbers in hotspots such as Florida, careful behaviour reduces risk rather than eliminating it. But the Blue Jays still remind their players to follow MLB’s protocols even though they’re no longer bound to the team hotel the way they were during training camp in Toronto.
“We do every day,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “Just because we do, it doesn’t mean someone couldn’t test positive. When you move from hotel to hotel, stuff could happen, but we really do every day.”
The positive tests that led to the shutdown of the Blue Jays’ Dunedin, Fla., facility in late June are a recent reminder that circumstances can worsen quickly. But the current environment around the team feels ‘extremely safe’ to Shoemaker, and from his perspective, Blue Jays players are doing their part to slow the spread of the virus.
“Say guys are going out to clubs or bars, that’s irresponsible to say the least,” Shoemaker said. “We have guys not doing that, which is great from a team standpoint. That’s why I really love this group of guys. We know we want to play baseball.”
Under these uncertain circumstances, Montoyo wouldn’t blame any of his players for deciding to opt out, but so far, no Blue Jays have approached their manager about that possibility. Montoyo still has plenty to figure out between the lines, though, and the on-field work continued at Saturday’s workout when the Blue Jays attempted to “get as close to game-speed as we can.”
Centre fielder Randal Grichuk was slated for some at-bats against live pitching, and his back is progressing well enough that Montoyo expects him in the lineup for their next game Tuesday. Fellow outfielder Derek Fisher faced a less certain fate as the left quadriceps that forced him to leave Thursday’s game early remains sore.
As for the Blue Jays’ pitching staff, Sam Gaviglio was optioned off of the roster after two difficult outings in which his fastball averaged just 87.6 m.p.h. The team’s now deciding whether he’ll remain with the Blue Jays on their taxi squad or head to the alternate training site in Rochester. And then there’s Shoemaker, who must now walk the line between staying sharp and over-exerting himself.
“It’s definitely a mental and physical battle,” he said. “Starters, we have our routines, we love our routines, we know what works for us … so definitely when little hiccups are in there it’s not fun.”
Without a doubt, games are preferable to workouts for players and fans alike. But Shoemaker waited more than a year between starts before making his season debut against the Rays last weekend. If anyone has the ability to handle a little time off, it’s probably him.