Cubs

How Cubs' coronavirus precautions add challenge to already daunting season

How Cubs' coronavirus precautions add challenge to already daunting season

Maybe this is as good as baseball’s coronavirus testing gets.

Players, managers, coaches and staff want better, and many say they expect continued improvement.

But with a week left before teams start leaving individual bubbles to travel for games, this may be where tests of faith start to fill the gaps in testing for the virus.

And that means players might have decisions to make all over again. It already means teams have been troubleshooting how scenarios that played out at Wrigley Field twice this week might be managed during games days.

“I think some more players will opt out,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said Wednesday after the Cubs held out six players from workouts as a precaution over “pending” results from Monday’s test.

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That could be an immediate cost. Thirteen players already have declined to accept the health risk and play this season, including Giants star Buster Posey and former Cy Young Award winners David Price and Felix Hernandez.

Angels superstar Mike Trout and Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish are among several others who have said they haven’t ruled out joining the 13, depending how safe things look as the game inches closer to a 60-game season to be played in the 30 home ballparks — many of which are located in COVID-19 hot spots.

The Cubs got word late Wednesday that none of the players they held out of practice had tested positive. But it’s at least the fourth time in six rounds of testing that results have been delayed or inconclusive enough to force the Cubs to reschedule workouts or hold out players and staff — and came two days after manager David Ross was among the group to miss workouts.

“There’s definitely a level of fire drill some mornings,” Ross said.

And this is where the teams have their work cut out, regardless of how strong their numbers remain when the season starts.

“This will present a problem if it happens within the season, and we’ll have to adjust,” Ross said. “But I think they’re working through that so we don’t have these problems when the season starts. … This is all new.”

But it’s also not likely to go away anytime soon, and almost certainly not by next week's openers — at least not as dramatically as players and other team officials would like to see.

MLB is using labs in Utah and New Jersey to turn around thousands of coronavirus tests every other day, which is subject to occasional issues involving a stressed national shipping industry when it comes to getting the samples to the labs and occasional batches that require quick retests because of inclusive results — or in some cases a positive result within a given batch.

RELATED: What the Cubs' Summer Camp testing delays mean for the regular season

The vast majority of delayed and retested samples produce negative results — as in the case of the Cubs’ half dozen on Wednesday. And MLB’s positive rate overall is about 1 percent.

Based on conversations with baseball people, not every team is approaching its “pending” cases with the same level of “abundance of caution” as the Cubs seem to be taking. Other teams are using case-by-case approaches or waiting until specifically positive results (or symptoms/risk behavior) to restrict activities.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Cubs remain the only team in the league without a known positive test among its players and coaching staff since intake testing began more than two weeks ago.

But what happens when the season starts, and a day like Monday or Wednesday comes up again — whether for the Cubs or an opponent?

“If we’re on a getaway day and Jon Lester’s our starter and has a pending test, it’s going to be hard for us to scramble,” Rizzo said. “I’m sure they’re working on it right now already to make sure that on Opening Day everything’s running as smooth as possible.”

But MLB does not appear to be in position to increase its testing capacity or delivery speed within the next week — especially when much of the country is experiencing surges in cases of COVID-19, positive rates and testing shortages.

One potential mitigating factor might be the fact that 48 of the Cubs’ 60 games (80 percent) are night games and two more are late-afternoon games. In theory, night games Monday and Wednesday of this week would have meant enough time in both cases to clear the “pending” results in time for the players in question to have played.

It may be small consolation to some.

“We didn’t sign up for these bad protocols as far as testing,” said Rizzo, whose Opening Day might already be in doubt as he battles a back issue. “The biggest thing for us is the safety.”

Neither he nor Ross are pointing fingers at MLB or the labs. They, along with other players and team officials, keep saying they expect the testing process to get even better.

But there may not be any specific reason to believe it will. And you can bank on roster rules staying where they are (nobody’s adding the kind of daily flexibility that would be certain to be abused — and would add to payroll costs).

So keep an eye on Mike Trout and Yu Darvish — and Sean Doolittle and Ryan Braun and everybody else who remains on edge about the risk this pandemic season poses?

“Listen, we are in a pandemic. We are all at risk,” Rizzo said. “We all want to play baseball because that’s what we love to do, and we have an opportunity to bring joy to a lot of people that are home, through these tough times.

“But we are all human. If guys start testing positive left and right and this gets out of control, I’m sure you’ll see some guys opt out.”

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Jason Kipnis enjoying 'fun ride' with Cubs, but 2016 World Series still stings

Jason Kipnis enjoying 'fun ride' with Cubs, but 2016 World Series still stings

A peppy voice shouted from offscreen, drawing Jason Kipnis’ attention away from the pregame Zoom setup in front of him. Kipnis chucked as he spotted Mike Napoli, his former Indians teammate and current Cubs quality assurance coach.

“Ask this guy about 2016,” Kipnis said to the reporters on Zoom as Napoli bobbed into frame.

“It was the greatest year of our lives,” Napoli shouted.

At least Kipnis had someone with him who knew what it was like to lose to the Cubs in the 2016 World Series.

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Kipnis returned to Progressive Field on Tuesday, for the first time since he signed with the Cubs as a free agent in February. In the Cubs’ 7-1 win against the Indians on Tuesday, Kipnis hit a double and scored a run on a wild pitch. It was his first time in a decade-long career facing Cleveland.

The Indians had drafted Kipnis in 2009. He’d made his major league debut with the club two years later. And he spent nine seasons in Cleveland.

A “homey vibe” hit him as the Cubs touched down in the airport Tuesday and drove to their hotel. Familiar views greeted him.

What was new was walking to the ballpark from the hotel, going through a different entrance.

“I'm actually being steered to probably a few hallways I didn't know existed,” Kipnis said.

He’d been to the visiting clubhouse before but never to the batting cages or weight room. He was seeing a new side of a building that he’d called home for so many years.

Plus, he was doing it in Cubbie blue. One of his most agonizing experiences at Progressive Field had come at the hands of the Cubs. His current teammates had made up the young core of that 2016 World Series Cubs team.

“I’ve already had Rizzo walking me through, ‘I celebrated here, I celebrated here,’" Kipnis said before the game. "I’m like, ‘Thanks, buddy. I get it.'”

Kipnis said there was never a real path for him to return to the Indians for this season.  Asked if the option was closed off on his end or the teams’, he said, “My phone never rang, I’ll put it that way.”

Instead Kipnis, a Northbrook native, joined his hometown team. Over the summer, Kipnis posted on Twitter that being a Cub was still a “mindf*ck” at times.

When he and the Indians lost World Series Game 7 at home, after blowing a 3-1 series lead, 99 percent of Kipnis was “absolutely crushed.”

But he said one percent could “look back at the field the last second be like, ‘Hey, at least it's the Cubs.’

If the Indians were going to lose, at least it was to a team with a 108-year World Series drought.

Kipnis likens his feelings about playing for his hometown team this year to that ratio. He’s overwhelmingly excited about representing Chicago and playing for his friends and family. One percent of him aches every time he sees the 2016 banners or World Series highlights, neither of which he can escape in Chicago.

“I have to keep reliving it,” Kipnis said. “… It sucks, but it was a fun time in ’16, and I don’t regret anything about it”

This year has been Kipnis’ first experience switching teams. He’s been locked in a position battle at second base with Nico Hoerner and has been efficient in limited at-bats. In seven games, Kipnis is batting .368, with five extra-base hits. He kept the ball from his first home run as a Cub.

“When you get back into that hunter mentality, it's fun,” Kipnis said, “because then you push yourself to stay at it. You might not feel great some days, and you normally might have taken a day off or something to rest the body, but now you just find a way to get something productive done that day.

“And I think especially coming here in Chicago, where I know now I have even more family and friends watching games, and friends of friends, everything, it's been like a little bit more motivation to stay on top of myself.”

The COVID-19 pandemic ensured that Kipnis would get to play his former team this season. Regular season schedules became regional, so the NL Central Cubs play the AL Central Indians four times this year.

But the pandemic also ensured that Kipnis wouldn’t be able to greet fans in person, or his former teammates and coaches how he’d like to – some of them with “bull-rush” hugs.

“I've invaded these guys personal spaces for about nine years,” Kipnis said. “I think I can take a day off from giving them a hug.”

The Indians played a tribute video for Kipnis before the game. Players and staff members applauded him. Kipnis stepped out and waved his hat at the empty stands.

Like much of this season, Kipnis’ return wasn’t anything like he could have imagined when he put pen to paper back in February. But at least publicly, you won’t hear any complaints from Kipnis.

“It's been such a fun ride here so far,” he said.

 

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Quick takes: Cubs show no rust in return, avoid Mike Clevinger to beat Indians

Quick takes: Cubs show no rust in return, avoid Mike Clevinger to beat Indians

The Cubs didn’t seem to have any rust to shake off on Tuesday, despite an unexpected break over the weekend.

The Cubs beat the Indians 7-1 in their return to Progressive Field, the ballpark where they claimed the 2016 World Series title.

Before the game, Cubs manager David Ross set up his pregame Zoom session with reporters in the visiting manager’s office. It was the same room where former Cubs manager Joe Maddon sat Ross down to talk about the then-backup catcher's role for Game 7 of the World Series.

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“A lot of memories walking down the street,” Ross said, "walking to the park today, walking in, for sure.”

Here are takeaways from the Cubs’ win:

Cubs avoid Clevinger

Indians pitcher Mike Clevinger was originally scheduled to start Tuesday. But instead, he spent the evening in quarantine and on the restricted list.

Clevenger apologized Tuesday for violating health and safety protocols by leaving the team hotel without permission while in Chicago for the Indians’ series against the White Sox.

Instead, Adam Plutko drew the start. He began the season in the bullpen but stretched out to 78 pitches on Tuesday. In four innings, Plutko allowed one run on four hits.

The Indians’ rotation is considered one of the best, if not the best, in baseball this season. The Cubs benefitted from getting to the Cleveland bullpen early. A five-run sixth inning included a three-run home run by Jason Heyward.

Lester stays steady

Jon Lester recorded his second straight quality start on Tuesday. Including the one run he allowed in six innings Tuesday, Lester has only given up two runs this season.

Lester was originally slated to pitch in the Cubs’ series opener at St. Louis. When that series was cancelled, due to three more positive COVID-19 tests from the Cardinals, Lester threw a bullpen session instead on Saturday to stay sharp.

Lester didn’t pitch like his schedule had been altered. He held Cleveland scoreless through five innings. The only run he allowed came in the sixth, when the Cubs had a six-run lead.

Kipnis returns

Cubs second baseman Jason Kipnis faced the Indians for the first time in his career, after spending nine seasons in Cleveland. He signed with the Cubs this offseason as a free agent.

The Indians played a tribute video for him before the game, which included an extensive montage of game-winning hits and plays.

During the game, Kipnis hit a double into right field to start his night at the plate. He also scored on a wild pitch in the seventh inning.

Where they stand

The Cubs improved to an 11-3 record, still leading the NL Central in wins despite having played three fewer games than the Reds at No. 2 in the division.

On deck

Next, the Cubs remain in Cleveland for the second game of a two-game series.

 

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