As MLB 60-game season draws near, careful optimism prevails

MILWAUKEE -- With the start of Major League Baseball's shortened season a week away, games in empty stadiums and strange extra-inning rules are on the verge of becoming reality.

Now that the players have gotten used to COVID-19 tests, social distancing and wearing masks in the clubhouse, it's just about time to see if 30 teams can handle a 60-game schedule amid a pandemic.

"We want to be part of a solution," Brewers General Manager David Sterns said. "We don't want to exacerbate any problem. I believe that to this point we have a chance to be part of a solution and we have a chance to provide diversion and entertainment. But we also understand that if it ever veers into exacerbating a problem then that is a sign for us to probably stop."

The continuation of the Brewers Blue vs. Gold Series at Miller Park. It's been kind of fun so far. Well received by the players. And another positive step toward Opening Day in this pandemic delayed baseball season.

We are about a week away from the first official pitch.

“Obviously, it’s going to feel a little different the way things are going with no fans and what-not," Brewers infielder Eric Sogard said, “but we’re all excited to get going and get back out there.”

The season begins next Thursday night with the defending World Series champion Washington Nationals hosting the New York Yankees, and the Los Angeles Dodgers welcoming the rival San Francisco Giants. The rest of the league joins the fray Friday, the common thread being that all games will be played without fans in the stands, each team will have a designated hitter and that a runner will be placed on second base during extra innings.

When summer camp began earlier this month following an extended layoff due to the coronavirus outbreak, there was plenty of doubt whether the quest to salvage the season would ever get this far.

Several stars chose not to participate from the start, and rarely a day goes by without a positive COVID-19 test in one camp or another. But here we are, mere days from launching a season that's unique in almost every way.

“I've been keeping my fingers crossed every day. So far, we're doing fairly well," said Orioles manager Brandon Hyde, whose team opens in Boston next Friday night. “We still have a ways to go before the 24th, and I'm nervous as anybody that we're going to be healthy."

But Hyde remains hopeful that the season will start on time and go the distance.

“People are feeling positive about how it's worked so far and going forward," he said.

Brewers general manager David Stearns noted that the reduced rate of positive tests recently “is a really encouraging sign."

“That gives all of us confidence in all segments of the industry that if we continue to do the right things, follow the proper protocols, that we’re going to give ourselves a pretty good chance," Stearns said.

While there's reason for optimism, the stark truth is that COVID-19 is not going away.

Texas Rangers reliever Brett Martin was placed on the injured list Thursday because of his positive test before the start of their summer camp.

Martin, already at higher risk because he has Type 1 diabetes, had a positive reading during intake testing two weeks ago. He experienced mild symptoms of COVID-19, including congestion and fatigue.

Because Martin is on the injured list because of coronavirus, he doesn’t count toward the team’s 40-man roster list while on the IL.

The 25-year-old lefty was 2-3 with a 4.76 ERA as a rookie last season.

In Miami, outfielders Matt Joyce and Lewis Brinson on the 10-day injured list by the Marlins. No reasons were given, but both have been sidelined since coronavirus testing began at the start of camp.

They still have a chance to play this season, manager Don Mattingly said.

The Braves are awaiting the return of four players who tested positive for the coronavirus: four-time All-Star Freddie Freeman, set-up reliever Will Smith, right-hander Touki Tousssaint and infielder Pete Kozma.

The Pirates have been very quiet in general in terms of potential health issues related to COVID-19 or otherwise.

“There’s things that happen that we don’t discuss," first-year manager Derek Shelton said. “We just have to adapt and adjust, and that’s what we’re doing every day."

In Atlanta, left-hander Cole Hamels (triceps tendinitis) threw a side session on Thursday and will be evaluated after an off day on Friday. Right-hander Kyle Wright appears set to open the season as the fifth starter after throwing three innings in an intrasquad game.

In New York, two-time Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom still plans to pitch on opening day for the Mets. He left an intrasquad game Tuesday with back tightness, but a precautionary MRI came back clean.

The delay to the start of the season has worked to the benefit of the Houston Astros, who were booed unmercifully during spring training in the wake of their sign-stealing scandal.

“I see more smiles. Actually I see more joy," manager Dusty Baker said. “Four months ago, that was a tough time. A lot has happened. We’re at a different time and space than we were four months ago.”

With no fans in the stands, the Astros won't hear any jeers. MLB is providing each club with an array of crowd sounds and a touchpad device that can be integrated into their ballpark public address system to help manage the playing of these sounds.

Marlins outfielder Corey Dickerson isn’t keen on the crowd noise being played during workouts.

“It sounds more like a sound machine to me,” Dickerson said. “I’d rather have some music playing."