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How the Boston Red Sox overcame a COVID outbreak and made it to the ALCS

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On the last day of August, before the bottom 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 immediately,” he said. “‘F—, I got COVID.'”

The loss of Bogaerts dealt a big blow to Boston’s morale amidst a tough stretch in the season. In the same way that the confident bravado of David Ortiz and grinder mentality of Dustin Pedroia 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, doling out handshakes and hugs to teammates, always trying to find a silver lining, regardless of how grim things may be.

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

Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom learned the news of Bogaerts’ diagnosis the way many of the team’s fans did — when he saw his shortstop exit the Rays game on television.

Bogaerts was the seventh Red Sox player to hit the COVID IL in the previous five days. For Bloom, watching back home in Boston, that moment marked the low point of the season. Boston was in the thick of a playoff chase, clinging to a wild-card spot, hoping to hold off surges from the New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays, Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics. And now its star shortstop — and best performer, by half-a-win to that date, according to FanGraphs — was out for at least 10 days.

Panic rang through Bloom’s head.

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

Between Aug. 27 and Sept. 12, a dozen Red Sox players and two members of the team’s support staff tested positive for COVID-19, threatening Boston’s ability to field a team on a nightly basis, let alone contend for a playoff spot. Core members of the roster — from Bogaerts to Kiké Hernández to Chris Sale — sat out significant periods of time. It was hard to imagine then that the Red Sox would be battling the Houston Astros in the ALCS. But now, they look back at the period that nearly derailed their season as a formative time that reset the team’s mindset and propelled them into the postseason.

“The outbreak, which nobody had experienced throughout the course of their careers, we as a group had to come together,” Bloom said. “That really served us well down the stretch. … They had to come together and make it happen.”

For weeks prior, team sources admit, the Red Sox did not adhere closely to safety protocol. Players walked around the clubhouse without masks, sitting at tables and playing cards. In early August, bench coach Will Venable tested positive with a breakthrough infection. On Aug. 27, Kiké Hernández, who is also vaccinated and self-identifies 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 together indoors for three hours. That day, second baseman Christian Arroyo tested positive, alongside strength and conditioning coach Kiyoshi Momose. Relievers Martín Pérez, Matt Barnes and quality control coach Ramón Vázquez tested positive while reliever Josh Taylor quarantined as a close contact on Aug. 30, and reliever Hirokazu Sawamura and Bogaerts tested positive the next day.

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

“I was just stressing out a lot,” Bogaerts said. “We had a lot of stuff with the COVID going on. I wasn’t playing well for a while.”

The Red Sox updated their COVID protocols. Masking around the team increased, with meetings moving from clubhouses to the stands. Groups for batting practice got smaller. Tests occurred daily. But despite the heightened precautions, the virus continued to spread.

Sept. 1 brought a positive test for utilityman Yairo Muñoz, and outfielder Jarren Duran hit the COVID IL on Sept. 3. Pitcher Nick Pivetta and utilityman Danny Santana followed on Sept. 5, then Sale — who had also tested positive during the offseason — and Jonathan Araúz on Sept. 10. Reliever Phillips Valdez was the 12th and final player to test positive, on Sept. 12.

On the day Hernández tested positive, Boston had a 74-56 record, third in the American League East behind the Yankees. The Red Sox had already been struggling, slowly descending from their perch atop the AL East, where they’d spent the majority of the first half of the season.

“I was concerned,” Bogaerts said. “A lot of our regular players were out — me, Kiké, a lot of the regular position players were out. We were hoping that none of the other guys like Devers were going to go 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 earlier days,” Bogaerts said in an early September interview. “You’re seeing day one, day two, I’ve got like eight or nine more to go. Those are the hard ones. The beginning ones. Once you start getting to day seven or day eight, you start getting anxious. You can’t wait to get back.”

Over the next few weeks, Boston shuffled its roster to compensate for the 12 players who went on the COVID list, with mixed results. Jonathan Araúz — who had played just 14 games before August 17 — filled in middle infield spots, doubling his game total between Aug. 17 and Sept. 8. Boston claimed utility man Taylor Motter (2-for-6 and three runs scored in three games with Red Sox) off of waivers from the Colorado Rockies, and signed José Iglesias (.356/.406/.508 in 23 games) after he was released from the Angels.

The team rounded out the pitching staff with players like 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 roster full of replacements and no room for error in an ever-tightening wild-card race, Boston continued on with a next-man-up mentality, a mindset that Cora said fueled the team’s ability to rack up a league-leading number of comeback wins.

“Those guys filled in nicely,” Bogaerts said. “They’re not guys that are going to hit homers and be as productive as the regular players, but they put down their bunts and made the plays defensively and they stepped up and helped everything balance out.”

After posting a 15-18 record in the 33 games before Hernandez went on the IL, the Red Sox finished the season 19-14 — a month that included a superstitious winning streak wearing yellow City Connect uniforms. They relied on one of the league’s best offenses while hoping for results from a bend-but-don’t-break pitching staff — and eventually clinched a wild-card berth on the final day of the regular season.

For Bloom, the outbreak required the team to maintain focus amid the chaos.

“The stories are easy to write in retrospect,” Bloom said. “There were a lot of points at the end of September where they could have folded the tent and they didn’t. Some of that has to do with coming together and making it happen after that low point in St. Pete. Rebounding from that and finding a way, some of that built resilience and the ability to go forward and take some punches and keep going.”

When Bogaerts returned from the COVID list, he flourished as the offensive anchor of the Boston lineup, hitting .271/.393/.443 with three homers in 20 games. It’s been more of the same in the playoffs, where he had a home run in the Red Sox’ wild-card win against the Yankees and batted .333 with another home run against the Rays in the ALDS.

Bogaerts said the forced time away gave him some renewed perspective. “It helped me relax a little bit,” he said. “Made me appreciate the game a lot more.”

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

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

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MLB Players Association to make counteroffer to league in Monday meeting

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The Major League Baseball Players Association plans to make an in-person labor proposal to the league on Monday, sources told ESPN, countering MLB’s offer last week that did little to loosen the gridlock that has gripped the sport after the league locked out the players Dec. 2.

Should the players’ offer do little to advance the negotiations that thus far haven’t yielded any substantive progress, the scheduled start to spring training in mid-February will grow that much unlikelier. And the longer discussions on a new collective-bargaining agreement last, the more they jeopardize Opening Day on March 31.

The gap between the players and league remains significant, with the union seeking major financial gains in a number of areas and owners trying to hold firm with what they currently pay in salaries. Other issues players have said remain a priority include anti-tanking measures and fixing service-time manipulation.

Any concessions players make in their offer could provide a roadmap to the negotiations. Before implementing the lockout, the league asked the union to drop three areas of discussion: earlier free agency for players, salary arbitration after two years instead of three and changes to the revenue-sharing plan. The union did not agree to the condition when presented with it Dec. 1, and the league left the bargaining table, locking out the players hours later.

Forty-three days later, the league returned to the union with an offer that included paying players with two to three years of service based on a formula, slight modifications to the draft lottery it previously had proposed and a mechanism that would reward teams with draft picks when top prospects who started on opening day rosters win awards.

The proposal did little to entice players, who after losing financial ground during the previous labor agreement want to make gains this time around.

News of the MLBPA’s expected counterproposal was first reported by The Associated Press

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Robot umpires at home plate moving up to Triple-A for 2022, one step away from major league baseball

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NEW YORK — Robot umpires have been given a promotion and will be just one step from the major leagues this season. Major League Baseball is expanding its automated strike zone experiment to Triple-A, the highest level of the minor leagues.

MLB’s website posted a hiring notice seeking seasonal employees to operate the Automated Ball-Strike system. MLB said it is recruiting employees to operate the system for the Albuquerque Isotopes, Charlotte Knights, El Paso Chihuahuas, Las Vegas Aviators, Oklahoma City Dodgers, Reno Aces, Round Rock Express, Sacramento River Cats, Salt Lake Bees, Sugar Land Skeeters and Tacoma Rainiers.

The independent Atlantic League became the first American professional league to let a computer call balls and strikes at its All-Star Game in July 2019 and experimented with ABS during the second half of that season. The system also was used in the Arizona Fall League for top prospects in 2019, drawing complaints of its calls on breaking balls.

There were no minor leagues in 2020 because of the pandemic, and robot umps were used last season in eight of nine ballparks at the Low-A Southeast League.

The Major League Baseball Umpires Association agreed in its labor contract that started in 2020 to cooperate and assist if commissioner Rob Manfred decides to use the system at the major league level.

“It’s hard to handicap if, when or how it might be employed at the major league level, because it is a pretty substantial difference from the way the game is called today,” Chris Marinak, MLB’s chief operations and strategy officer, said last March.

MLB said the robot umpires will be used at some spring training ballparks in Florida, will remain at Low A Southeast and could be used at non-MLB venues.

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Tampa Bay Rays say split-season plan with Montreal rejected by MLB

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Rays‘ proposed plan to split the season between Florida and Montreal has been rejected by Major League Baseball.

Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg announced the news on Thursday.

“Today’s news is flat-out deflating,” Sternberg said.

The idea of playing in both the Tampa Bay area and Montreal has been discussed over the past several years after attempts to build a new full-time ballpark locally failed.

Montreal had a big league team from 1969, when the expansion Expos began play, through 2004. The Expos moved to Washington and became the Nationals for the 2005 season.

The Rays’ lease at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, where the team has played since its inaugural season in 1998, expires after the 2027 season.

Since Sternberg took control in October 2005, the once-struggling franchise has been a success on the field but not at the box office.

Despite reaching the World Series in 2008 and 2020, the Rays have annually ranked near the bottom in attendance. The Rays averaged about 9,500 for home games last season, 28th in the majors and ahead of only Miami and Oakland.

St. Petersburg mayor Ken Welch feels a new stadium in his city remains a possibility. Governmental officials have been working on a redevelopment plan for the Tropicana Field site.

“We are working with our county partners and city council to put together the best plan possible, which will work in conjunction with my planned evolution of the Tropicana Field master development proposals,” Welch said in a statement. “With this collaborative approach, I am confident we can partner with the Tampa Bay Rays to create a new and iconic full-time home for Major League Baseball in St. Petersburg while also achieving historic equitable economic growth.”

Sternberg said the team will definitely explore options in the Tampa Bay area.

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