If a worst-case scenario lurked within the COVID outbreak that is not just ravaging but now officially routing the Red Sox, it went like this: Imagine if Xander Bogaerts failed a test mid-game.
Ponder that hypothetical no longer, because Tuesday night in Tropicana Field, just minutes after drilling an RBI single to give the Red Sox a brief 1-0 lead, Bogaerts found himself summoned from shortstop to the dugout by manager Alex Cora, who had just been visited by his personal harbinger of doom, trainer Brad Pearson.
It did not take an immunologist to conclude that Bogaerts had tested positive for COVID, joining seven other teammates and coaches in a growing outbreak that appears ready to turn September into an exercise in pity that should at least allow local fans to enjoy the dawning of the Mac Jones Era in Foxboro with undivided attention.
The Red Sox spoke bravely after an 8-5 loss that cut their wild card lead to just a game over the Oakland A's, noting that their starting pitching remains intact (for now), and that a number of standout offensive players remain unaffected (for now), and that they've even managed to reset what remains of their bullpen (most definitely for now).
But we shouldn't be surprised if dominoes continue to fall, giving 2021 an unforeseen and unwelcome 2020 feel.
"Now that we've got some guys going down, this is a time to really rally around each other and really focus on the small things and try to do that," said outfielder Kyle Schwarber. "Obviously, you're down some guys, down some big names, but there's still a lot of capable people on the field to go out there and win big league baseball games."
That's a nice sentiment, but let's be real. The season is over. It expired on Aug. 31, and what's left is another 33 days of string that will play itself out until the regular season finale on Oct. 3 in Washington, D.C.
It's hard to even be angry as a once-promising campaign collapses under the weight of a hundred PCR tests. While it's true that the Red Sox unfortunately failed to reach the 85 percent vaccination threshold triggering lesser restrictions for close contacts of infected players, it's also worth noting that this latest outbreak started with at least two players -- outfielder Kiké Hernández and closer Matt Barnes -- who have revealed that they received their shots.
That doesn't change how terrible a look it is for a team that opened the season with CDC director Rochelle Walensky throwing out the first pitch to suffer a COVID outbreak almost certainly involving unvaccinated players. But given the transmissibility of the Delta strain, maybe this was unavoidable. The Yankees, after all, suffered a similar outbreak in May, and they reached the 85 percent threshold.
Yelling about the club's failings may be cathartic, but it also feels performative. In any event, the whys of the rampant infection scattering quarantining Red Sox personnel across Ohio and Florida (and not that long ago, Canada, too), are less important than the reality of their predicament.
With Barnes, Josh Taylor, and Hirokazu Sawamura sidelined for the next week to 10 days, the bullpen is a mess. Making matters worse, starter Nick Pivetta appears to be hitting a wall, and right-hander Tanner Houck keeps crumbling the third time through the order.
Add a defense with more holes than a washtub on the wrong end of a Gatling gun, and the Red Sox are running out of places to turn. That's what makes Bogaerts' absence such a killer. He's a two-time World Series champ and a lineup linchpin. Removing him from the equation could topple an already woozy Jenga tower.
"Obviously Xander, he's the leader of the team," Cora said. "He's one of the best shortstops, if not the best shortstop, in the league. We're going to miss him. But we still have our pitching staff, we still have some capable guys that can swing the bats. We'll talk about what we're going to do. I do believe that for X amount of time, we need to play better defense, find a way to catch the ball to prevent runs and let those big boys keep swinging the bat the way they are."
There's no sense in the Red Sox publicly surrendering, not with a month to go and a small lead for the second wild card intact. But we know how this story ends, and it ain't in the playoffs. Thanks for three and a half entertaining months, and we'll see you next year.