ST. LOUIS — As the Cubs continue to sweat COVID-19 safety protocols and debate the merits of vaccines, the first-place Cardinals are removing their masks, going out to dinner together on the road and wondering if their herd-immunity level of vaccination might do as much for their chances to win the National League Central as acquiring Nolan Arenado.
“We play 162 games, and a lot of times it’s decided by one game at the end of the day,” Cardinals pitcher Andrew Miller said. “It’d be easy to go back and say this game was decided by a big hit by one of our players or by an error or by a walk or whatever.
“This just adds another wrinkle,” he added in a conversation Sunday with NBC Sports Chicago, “and you hope you’re on the right side of it.”
Talk about an extra shot in the arm competitively for a Cardinals team that nearly had its 2020 season derailed by a team COVID-19 outbreak that forced multiple shutdowns and a gauntlet of doubleheaders.
Some of the Cardinals believe that experience is why the Cards were one of the first of 14 major-league teams that MLB announced has reached the 85-percent vaccination threshold among players and other “Tier 1” coaches and support staff required to lift several safety restrictions.
“We witnessed it,” Cardinals pitching coach Mike Maddux said of the impact on a team that finished three games behind the division-champion Cubs. “I think that made our vaccination fairly easy because we went through a lot.”
MLB expects to clear two more teams as fully vaccinated in the next few days, which will put just over half of the league in that category.
The Cubs are not one of them, and team officials don’t expect them to be, maybe all season
“My level of optimism is waning, candidly,” team president Jed Hoyer said a few days ago, adding, “We are not a player away from being at 85 percent. It is a disappointing thing that we will have anxieties and restrictions that others don’t.”
Whether the Cubs’ lack of clubhouse consensus on vaccinations — in contrast to the Cardinals — has anything to do with their experience as the only team in 2020 without a player testing positive, it clearly puts the Cubs at a competitive disadvantage.
And potentially an even greater disadvantage by comparison to the team that leads them by two games after the Cubs’ 2-1, 10-inning victory Sunday.
“I got [the vaccine], and I’m a believer in it,” Miller said. “But everybody’s entitled to their own opinion. At the same time, for us to have the majority of our team covered, it certainly gives us a better opportunity to survive some sort of outbreak.”
Beating the Cardinals in the weekend series in St. Louis underscores what might be at stake for the Cubs, a team that has been good enough to go 8-1 against the Cardinals, NL East-leading Mets, NL-favorite Dodgers so far this season.
The potentially thin margin for error in the division race also might be underscored by the one-run decisions the Cubs and Cardinals split the last two nights.
Teams that don’t reach the 85-percent mark not only run a greater risk of positive tests, but contact-tracing protocols for lesser vaccinated teams require IL moves for players exposed to those testing positive, regardless of their own testing results.
“That’s a huge advantage for a guy getting the vaccine,” Cubs catcher Willson Contreras told NBCSC. “That’s something that a few guys need to think [about].”
The Cubs, for example, lost three players to the IL in quick sequence last month after two coaches tested positive.
“That’s a pretty horrible feeling and a pretty helpless feeling,” Hoyer said. “The fact that we aren’t able to eliminate that is disappointing.”
The Cardinals already lived an example of the vaccination advantage last month, when Sunday’s starter, Adam Wainwright, needed to leave the team for three days to help care for his wife, who had contracted COVID-19.
Because the Cardinals had achieved the 85-percent threshold of vaccinations, combined with the fact Wainwright was among those vaccinated, he was not required to quarantine before returning to the team.
That meant only a delay of a regularly scheduled start instead of a missed start or more for a veteran right-hander who pitched eight scoreless innings against the Cubs Sunday.
“The contact-tracing thing is a big deal,” Hoyer said.
Cubs veteran Kris Bryant “absolutely” sees the competitive advantage to vaccinations, he said, and experienced “peace of mind” with his own. Contreras and teammate Javy Báez are big enough believers to have joined public-service campaigns to encourage vaccinations.
And other Cubs such as Saturday’s starter Adbert Alzolay and second baseman Nico Hoerner have gotten their shots.
But will enough Cubs who have so far resisted join them? And if they don’t, will they be able to stay as vigilant as Jake Arrieta suggested they can to avoid enough outbreaks and contact-tracing shutdowns the next four months to keep enough players on the field to keep pace in the division?
The Cubs already have a pitching staff without much margin for error built in.
And injuries are up league-wide during this first full season after the 60-game COVID season.
“Anything we can do to keep guys on the field is a positive,” Miller said.