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Major League Baseball’s prime-time return amid the COVID-19 pandemic was dealt an unsettling blow when one of its greatest young stars tested positive for the novel coronavirus before he could take the field in 2020.
Juan Soto, the Washington Nationals’ dazzling 21-year-old outfielder, was omitted from the opening-day roster after a positive test for COVID-19, general manager Mike Rizzo confirmed Thursday, just hours before the defending World Series champions were to open the season with a nationally-televised game against the New York Yankees.
Soto was among a group of Nationals who were quarantined for 14 days at the outset of the team’s “summer camp” in Washington after he flew on an MLB-chartered flight from the Dominican Republic to Miami with a passenger who ultimately tested positive for COVID-19. Soto rejoined the team July 16 and played in exhibition games against Philadelphia and Baltimore.
Rizzo says Soto is asymptomatic after taking the test Tuesday and receiving the results Thursday morning, and says no other Nationals will be unavailable for the opener due to contact tracing ramifications. Nationals manager Dave Martinez said Soto tested negative four times before Thursday’s positive result.
As part of its plan to return to play following a nearly four-month shutdown due to COVID-19, players are tested every other day, with results expected to be delivered within 24 to 48 hours. Soto is at least the 70th MLB player to publicly acknowledge testing positive; the vast majority of those positives occurred during intake testing around July 1 or earlier this summer.
Even if Soto is healthy, the positive test result will sideline him for a significant portion of MLB’s 60-game season. There is no specified isolation period in MLB’s health and safety protocols, but a player must test negative in consecutive tests at least 24 hours apart, pass a health screening and be approved by doctors from MLB and the players’ association.
Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman tested negative for COVID-19 at the start of summer camp, but produced a positive test taken around July 9. While Yankees GM Brian Cashman said Wednesday that Chapman is asymptomatic and working out at home, he continues testing positive for COVID-19.
Soto played in an exhibition against the Orioles as recently as Tuesday night; MLB’s health and safety protocols released before players returned to team facilities notes that only players who have come into “close contact,” as defined by the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) must pass an expedited diagnostic test and be tested every day for seven consecutive days.
The CDC’s definition of “close contact” is someone “living in the same household, being within six feet of someone for fifteen minutes or longer, or being in direct contact with secretions from a sick person with COVID-19 (e.g., being coughed on). Close contact does not include brief interactions, such as walking past someone.”
Soto hit 34 home runs and drove in 110 runs for the Nationals in 2019, and then added five more home runs in the postseason, including three in their seven-game World Series triumph over the Houston Astros.
“It crushed me when I found out,” Martinez said on a video call Thursday.
Anthony Fauci, the celebrated immunologist and a member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, is scheduled to throw out the first pitch before Thursday’s game.