What I’m Hearing: Bob Nightengale on the latest outbreak in MLB
BALTIMORE — They ran sprints down hotel hallways, rolled up sanitary socks into makeshift baseballs and tossed them into mattresses, even stepped around dirty room-service dishes to take part in Zumba classes, all mitigating physical hurdles even if the greater challenge was mental.
For nine days, the Miami Marlins were not a team but rather a grim experiment in pandemic baseball gone wrong, forced into various modes of isolation and quarantine as their luxury accommodations in Philadelphia felt more and more like captivity.
Finally, Tuesday night at Camden Yards, the Marlins returned to the field, but it was almost impossible to deny that this was a team splintered into thirds.
The first team was thousands of miles away: Eighteen players and three staff members who tested positive for the novel coronavirus and were shipped back to Miami from Philadelphia on sleeper busses, now in isolation and, we can only hope, on the way to recovery.
The second team is what’s left of the first, a group the Marlins are calling the Trece — Spanish for 13 — a baker’s dozen of players who dodged COVID-19 but were forced to isolate in Philly for eight days until they were deemed healthy.
And the third line? Well, just consider them the most motley crew of Marlins ever assembled in a franchise that knows strange times — a mélange of rookies, waiver claims and trade acquisitions tossed together in a week’s time in a madcap attempt to make the roster whole.
Tuesday, the Trece and the fresh Fish came together, many of them having never met in person until arriving at Oriole Park, to see what kind of season they might salvage.
The results were nothing short of inspiring.
Pitching less than a month after the death of his father, Pablo Lopez — reduced to mattress baseball in his Philly digs — spun five innings of one-hit, shutout ball against the Baltimore Orioles.
Veteran catcher Francisco Cervelli punctured the quiet of a scoreless tie with a fifth-inning home run. Three innings later, Jesus Aguilar blasted a ball even deeper over the left field wall. It was his third home run in four games, never mind that the first came nearly 11 days ago and what seemed like a lifetime ago.
at Orioles Park, going Camden yard. don’t txt 💙 pic.twitter.com/oasVMkFxuh
— Miami Marlins (@Marlins) August 5, 2020
Two innings of one-hit relief were turned in by James Hoyt and Richard Bleier, who manager Don Mattingly did not meet until Tuesday afternoon, as they waited to get their temperatures checked before boarding the bus to the ballpark.
It was just a 4-0 victory over a rebuilding team, albeit one that improved the Marlins’ record to 3-1 — the finest winning percentage in a season where several teams are well past the 10-game mark.
More than that, it was a modicum of relief for a team constantly navigating the unknown.
“We’ve been through a lot,” a visibly drained Mattingly said on a postgame video call. “We didn’t know quite how we’d react. You get tested and you have to persevere and you learn from a lot of situations. We knew we had a good group of guys.
“We miss the guys who are gone. We just have to survive this trip.”
A trip that was supposed to be one week, but now is just reaching the halfway point of a 22-day odyssey that cast the eastern portion of Major League Baseball’s schedule into disarray.
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The Marlins still must make up seven games after they lost a week of baseball following the nightmare array of positive tests that waylaid their roster. It began the morning of July 26, when starting pitcher Jose Urena, first baseman Garrett Cooper and outfielder Harold Ramos all tested positive for the coronavirus, joining catcher Jorge Alfaro.
Miami played and defeated the Phillies that day, a controversial choice to carry on by league and team. But the bad times were just beginning.
Rather than return home, the Marlins got marooned in Philadelphia as positive tests kept spiraling and, ultimately, taking out Nos. 1-2-3 in their rotation — Sandy Alcantara, Caleb Smith and Urena. Seven members of their bullpen succumbed.
And the hell of the unknown settled over their hotel.
“The lack of not knowing anything,” Mattingly said of the mental anguish. “We left the ballpark in Philly, we’d lost four guys, and you think that’s it. You plan to leave the next morning. The next morning, the tests come back, awful.
“And then it’s Friday back to Miami. And then that becomes Sunday. You knew guys were getting more frustrated with being locked up in a room, being frustrated with all the stuff out there. We have to move on. It’s good to get back on the field, move forward, talk about baseball.”
Yet still so much had to happen before they could.
Marlins’ makeshift roster
The avalanche of transactions that occurred Tuesday — 13 players to the injured list, 18 more added to the 40-man or active roster — culminated an unprecedented flurry of pandemic-driven roster activity.
“You never anticipate needing to replace 18 players,” said Michael Hill, the Marlins’ president of baseball operations.
So Hill activated every corner of his organization, from player development to pro scouts to calling in a few solids from execs around the league. And here’s what he came up with:
Not one, but two pitchers named Josh Smith.
An Olympic silver medalist in short-track speed skating who’d make his first major league roster at 30, one of four new Marlins who’d yet to set foot on a big league field.
Seven guys off the scrap heap — either claimed on waivers, or recently released, or acquired for “cash considerations.”
Tuesday night, somehow, it coalesced.
Today’s Roster Update: pic.twitter.com/reqvTIywnD
— Miami Marlins (@Marlins) August 4, 2020
Aguilar looked like he hadn’t missed a beat since the shutdown, and that’s no coincidence. He relied heavily on Zumba classes in his room to stay limber and in the eighth inning destroyed yet another baseball, putting the bow on an emotional victory.
“We’ve been waiting for this moment for 15 days,” says Aguilar. “It was a great moment for us.
“A lot of new guys with the same goal, pushing in the right direction. Now, we’ve got to keep going.
“We have to. We don’t got no choice. We’ve been through a lot.”
Indeed, the human element can’t be underestimated here.
Infielder Miguel Rojas — perhaps the team’s best player and its undeniable face — was among those testing positive for COVID-19, and noted in a video call this week the hidden emotional toll.
“It tells you a lot about we’re suffering,” he said. “We’re human beings, not just baseball players. We’re suffering from this virus. We’ve got another 15 teammates that got the virus. This has to bring awareness. Not just to our team but to everybody throughout the league.”
Tuesday, Rojas’ exuberance could not be contained on Twitter, as he rooted on his mates and most notably Lopez, who had gone nearly 11 months since throwing a meaningful pitch.
Great job @pablojoselopez flawless job specially after sitting in ur room for over a week. Hats off to you brother 👏🏽👏🏽
— Miguel Rojas (@MRojasOfficial) August 5, 2020
He stayed sharp during the four-month industry shutdown and looked good early in summer camp. But after the first week, a shocker: His father died suddenly of a heart attack and Lopez left the team for several days.
Lopez returned to the team by the opener but did not pitch before the club’s hiatus. And so he balled up socks and threw into his mattress in his Philadelphia hotel room, just one man on his mind all the while.
“Finding myself alone in my hotel room in Philadelphia, that wore me down mentally,” says Lopez, 24. “But thinking of him kept me going. I kept having conversations with him there. I enjoyed that feeling of someone on my shoulder watching over me.
“He held me get through that time in Philly, making sure I was doing everything right.”
Marlins’ motley crew
Minus Alcantara, Urena and Caleb Smith, Lopez might be the Marlins’ ace by default. It wouldn’t be the oddest look on their roster.
The club now counts a 2014 Olympic silver medalist among its ranks: Eddy Alvarez, a 30-year-old rookie outfielder who wowed the club with his versatility in both spring and summer camps this year.
“Just a tremendous story on stick-to-it-iveness, attention to his craft as a professional baseball player,” says Hill of Alvarez, a Miami native who spent six seasons in the minors with the White Sox and Marlins after winning silver in the Sochi Games. “Being on the major league roster for the first time at that age is just a tremendous credit to him and his hard work.”
Alvarez is one of four Marlins hastily added to the roster who have never played in the big leagues, the other three — pitchers Jorge Guzman and Daniel Castano and outfielder Monte Harrison arriving in trades involving Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich, respectively.
Those deals signaled a teardown and perhaps an eventual strong young core. Now, the Marlins are building back up in a fashion nobody could have imagined.
They can only hope the worst is behind them.
“We’ve been in the hotel a long time,” says Mattingly. “Guys are happy to be out of there. We expect to win, honestly. It will be a different look. But I think we expect to win.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Gabe Lacques on Twitter @GabeLacques.