Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., prior to the beginning of the 2021 Major League Baseball season.
For the second year in a row, a positive COVID-19 test has impacted the Nationals' opening day. Credit: Kelyn Soong

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Update, April 1, 6:15 p.m.:

The Nationals announced this afternoon that an additional two players have tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total to three players on the team who have contracted the coronavirus. All are currently quarantining and contact tracing within the organization is ongoing. The team has not announced when its rescheduled home opener will take place.

Update, April 1, 12:05 p.m.:

This is not an April Fools’ prank: The long awaited opening day game between the Nationals and New York Mets at Nationals Park has been postponed due to coronavirus concerns. ESPN’s Buster Olney was the first to report the news and the team later confirmed that the game has been postponed because of the ongoing contract tracing involving individuals in the Nationals organization. The opening day game will not be made up on Friday.

On Wednesday, the Nationals announced that a player had tested positive for COVID-19 and five other people, including four players, were in close contact.

Original post:

Nationals general manager and president Mike Rizzo didn’t envision spending the eve of MLB’s opening day talking about the coronavirus pandemic. After a spring training in which no Nationals players tested positive for COVID-19, and with the team preparing to welcome back 5,000 fans to Nationals Park in its home opener tonight, the mood in the organization should have been celebratory.

Instead, Rizzo announced Wednesday on a Zoom call with reporters that a Nationals player had tested positive for COVID-19 and five people (four players and one staff member) were deemed close contacts and forced to quarantine. Rizzo did not reveal the name of the player who tested positive but said that it would impact the opening day lineup.

The Nationals will play the New York Mets tonight, with the first pitch set for 7:09 p.m. It will be the first game at Nationals Park with fans since Game 5 of the 2019 World Series.

“First and foremost, we want to protect our players, their families, and our staff members, that’s always paramount on my mind,” Rizzo told reporters Wednesday. “And then we’re going to put the best, most qualified group of players on the field to win a baseball game. And the good thing about this year, it’s 162 [games]. And again, little hiccup, little bumps in the road, and we’re going to handle this, like we handle everything else and try and win as many games as we can. And when we get our guys back, give them hell.”

The Nats had their final spring training game on Monday in West Palm Beach, Florida, where afterward, players, coaches, and staff members were tested for COVID-19. A majority of the team, including the player who was infected, then got on a bus and took a charter flight back to D.C. Those were the only interactions the Nationals had with each other, Rizzo said, and the test results arrived early Wednesday morning.

Max Scherzer, who will be the Nationals’ starting pitcher tonight, did not travel with the team, choosing instead to fly back with his family, and said he was told that the “transmission could have happened or most likely would have happened,” on the charter flight. According to the Washington Post, the players, coaches, and staff took both PCR and rapid tests after learning of the positive result.

“It’s kind of, oh crap, we had done so well in spring training,” Scherzer said of his reaction to the news. “We had seen so few positive cases across spring training as a whole. But it just shows you how quickly that can turn, turn on a dime and we [have] to face it and we [have] to overcome it.”

A sign at Nationals Park reminding fans that masks are mandatory in the ballpark Credit: Kelyn Soong

According to the MLB’s health and safety protocols for 2021, individuals who test positive will be required to “isolate for a minimum of 10 days, receive appropriate care and monitoring from the club’s medical staff, and be cleared by the Joint Committee and the individual’s team physician, following a mandatory cardiac evaluation and a determination that the individual no longer presents a risk of infection to others.” Individuals who have been in close contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19 will need to quarantine for seven days and must test negative on Day 5 or later to rejoin club facilities.

To replace the infected players and four who have been in close contact, the Nationals have called up infielder Luis García, left-handed reliever Sam Clay, outfielder Yadiel Hernandez, and catcher Tres Barrera from their alternate site in Fredericksburg, Virginia, according to the Post.

“The reason for the alternate site being so close is for exactly for this scenario that [is] playing out now,” Rizzo said. “We’re certainly prepared for it in no matter what the numbers they throw at us. We got a game … against [Jacob] deGrom and the Mets and we’re gonna field the best team that we can to to win that game and moving forward. So I think that all the failsafe were in place for this type of scenario and we’ve got a group of good, young, hungry players 60 miles away in Fredericksburg to help us win.”

This is the Nationals’ second opening day in a row that has been impacted by a positive COVID-19 test. Last year, Juan Soto tested positive before the game and he would end up sitting out the first eight games of the season. Soto insisted that he had a false positive after receiving back-to-back lab-confirmed negative tests.

Even with the news Wednesday, Scherzer sees the light at the end of the tunnel in regards to the pandemic. Part of his optimism lies with the availability of vaccines.

“I feel like we’re really close to the end of this because of the vaccine,” Scherzer said. “Once we’re vaccinated, and I should really say once we have the choice to have that vaccination, the guys who do it and who guys don’t, I mean that is what it is. At that point, we’re basically, how I see it is I’m basically done with this. I’m ready to get back to normal. I’m ready for me personally to do everything that we want to do on and off the field and live our lives as normal as best we can.”

Scherzer added that he has not gotten the vaccine yet; MLB players may not yet be qualified to receive it, depending on the state and their own conditions. The league and its players’ union sent a memo to teams earlier this week encouraging players and staff members to get vaccinated and provided details of how that could lead to some loosening of pandemic-related protocols.

“I think those are the rules being discussed with the MLB and the union of what the protocols are going to be for vaccinated players, and basically what benefits besides having the protection and having the antibodies but what relaxations and protocols are going to be had, and basically how much can we relax,” Scherzer said when asked if teams should incentivize players getting vaccinated. “And really, for me, being on subcommittee, is trying to fight as hard as possible to relax as many of those protocols as possible for vaccinated players. Because for me, I see it as we’ve done absolutely everything in our power to help curtail the pandemic by taking the vaccine. We should realize the most amount of gains.”

Rizzo has gotten one of two vaccine shots and said he is a “proponent of it” and that he “would recommend it to everybody out there.” But he added getting vaccinated would come down to the players’ choice.

Since the news of the team’s latest positive test, Rizzo has yet to discuss vaccines with players, but he plans on doing so. “Just to tell them that I personally recommend it and it’s going to be their own decision,” Rizzo said. “I think that these players are so intelligent, they’re so in tune with what’s going on, they’re gonna make their own decisions. That’s what works best for them and their family.”