BRONX, New York City -- A baseball season that was on the brink before it ever began because of the virus outbreak is set to start Thursday night when excitable Max Scherzer and the World Series champion Washington Nationals host prized ace Gerrit Cole and the New York Yankees.
When Opening Day does get underway - the DC forecast calls for thunderstorms, the latest rocky inning in this what-can-go-wrong game - it'll mark the most bizarre year in the history of Major League Baseball.
It also began with the startling news that Washington Nationals slugger Juan Soto had tested positive for COVID-19 and was put on the injured list, forcing him to miss the start of the pandemic-delayed season.
"You feel bad for him. He's a great player. The fans want to see him. And it affects our lineup," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said as he announced Soto's test less than five hours before the 2019 World Series champions were scheduled to host the New York Yankees on opening day.
"But what can you do about it?" Rizzo said. "You've got to play ball. ... We're going to have to win without our best guy. It's a challenge."
Soto, a 21-year-old left fielder who was a breakout star of last postseason, will be sidelined until he can come up negative on two consecutive coronavirus tests.
"He's asymptomatic," Rizzo said. "He's following all major league protocols."
Rizzo said the Nationals had done contact tracing to check whether other members of the organization had been exposed.
"At this time, there's nobody else unavailable because of the contact tracing," Rizzo said.
Soto had missed the first two weeks of the team's summer camp this month after he was exposed to someone with COVID-19.
The season comes with a bevy of changes, including a 60-game season and stars opting out. Ballparks without fans, players wearing masks. Piped-in sound effects, cardboard cutouts for spectators. Spray-painted ads on the mound, pitchers with personal rosin bags.
And a rack of strange rules. DHs in the National League, well, OK. An automatic runner on second to start the 10th inning? C'mon, now.
"Gosh, it's going to be fun," Cole said. "It's going to have fake crowd noise, and going to be 2020 coronavirus baseball."
Plus, a poignant reminder of the world we live in. A Black Lives Matter stencil can be put on mounds throughout the majors during the opening weekend.
And still there's a team that doesn't know where it's going to play - barred from Toronto because of health concerns, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and the Blue Jays had hoped to roost in Pittsburgh or Baltimore or Buffalo or somewhere else.
"This is 2020 baseball," Scherzer said.
To many fans, that will do. No other choice, really. Four months after the games were supposed to start, strange ball is better than no ball, right? We'll see.
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