The perseverance shown by the 2020 St. Louis Cardinals – coming back from numerous COVID cases and negotiating through an unprecedentedly compressed make up schedule to reach the post-season is The Cardinal Nation’s choice as the top story of the year.
And nothing else was even close.
COVID-19 was in the background from moment the New Year began, but the reality first hit baseball directly on March 12, when spring training camps across the game were abruptly closed.
At that time, MLB announced an overly-optimistic two-week delay to the start of the regular season. Just four days later, they broadened their view, adopting CDC guidelines to not assemble groups of 50 people or more for at least eight weeks.
In doing so, Opening Day could be no sooner than May 10, but was left indefinite. The Minor League Baseball season was also put in limbo (and later cancelled). Still in mid-March, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred expressed optimism that all 162 games could be played.
At the end of March, owners and the MLB Players Association thought they agreed on a plan to compensate players in the disrupted season. However, it soon became clear that there was a major misunderstanding about the level of player pay if stadiums could not be full.
In May, MLB offered an 80-game schedule to the MLBPA, but with the players receiving a percentage of revenue. Players believed the March agreement entitled them to full salaries prorated to the number of games played, with their proposal being 114 games.
This core dispute ultimately led to weeks of proposals and counterproposals that were doomed to failure. Essentially, the owners stalled until the commissioner unilaterally set a 60-game season at full prorated salaries. This was announced on June 23, with the season to start a month later.
As July opened, players returned to work across the game in three-week camps to prepare for the delayed opening day. A total of 45 Cardinals were invited to Summer Camp in St. Louis. 15 more reported to the alternate camp in Springfield, which opened mid-month,
There were disruptions from the start. A number of Cardinals players, primarily pitchers, were not in camp, either because they had positive tests before arriving or when they reached St. Louis. The group included pitchers Giovanny Gallegos, Genesis Cabrera, Ricardo Sanchez, Carlos Martinez and Junior Fernandez plus third baseman Elehuris Montero.
On July 13, after having reported to camp, rehabbing Type 1 diabetic relief pitcher Jordan Hicks opted out of the season as was his right as a high-risk case.
As the regular season began, almost immediately, the Miami Marlins suffered 19 positive cases. The Cardinals were next to be hit with their first positive test results disclosed on July 31. The team was in Milwaukee, having played just five games in the regular season to date.
On August 3, a total of 13 positives (seven players and six staff) among the Cardinals traveling party were announced. The team sent them home individually, with the other 44 remaining in quarantine in Milwaukee. The players affected were catcher Yadier Molina, infielders Paul DeJong, Edmundo Sosa and Rangel Ravelo, and pitchers Martinez, Fernandez and Kodi Whitley.
Two days later, the Cardinals were allowed to leave Milwaukee on a charter flight home. That proved to be a mistake, as three more Cardinals – a staff member plus pitcher Ryan Helsley, and first baseman-outfielder Austin Dean – were exposed and tested positive on August 7. Outfielder Lane Thomas soon joined them and pitcher Austin Gomber was quarantined due to contract tracing, rather than a positive test. Coach Willie McGee opted out rather than return.
After being out 16 days, since July 30, the Cardinals resumed play on August 15 – after driving individually from St. Louis to Chicago. The revised and highly-condensed schedule required them to play 11 doubleheaders as part of 53 games in 44 days on their way to 58 games in total.
Of the 10 Cardinals players to test positive, Molina was the first to be activated, on August 20. The other nine returned at different rates and varied levels of effectiveness.
In early September, Dexter Fowler was the second player to use the COVID-related injured list despite not being exposed. The outfielder was prescribed a new medicine for a long-term stomach ailment (ulcerative colitis) that weakened his immune system. Fowler would be out for almost three weeks.
Upon his return to the active roster, Martinez disclosed that he had been hospitalized three or four times due to complications from the virus. The right-hander did not pitch in game action between July 28 and September 8 and was relatively ineffective upon his return before suffering a season-ending oblique injury.
The Cardinals were able to remain on schedule, completing their final 53 games in 44 days from August 15 to September 27 – with only two off-days. The grind included 11 double-headers, during which they posted a 13-9 record, including three sweeps.
Even with the twin-bill games being just seven innings in duration, the roster pressure just to field enough healthy players, especially pitchers, was intense. Specifically, the Cardinals made 151 player transactions during the regular season.
In those 58 games, 44 different players appeared – 19 position players and 25 pitchers. 21 different players spent time on the injured list. 13 Cardinals made their MLB debuts, including four in the same game and seven over a crazy two-day span as the team returned to action for the final stretch (August 15-16).
In the final weekend of the season, the Cardinals captured second place in the National League Central Division. The 30-28 Cardinals edged Cincinnati via the 6-4 head-to-head results tiebreaker, with both clubs finishing three games behind the first-place Chicago Cubs. As the fifth seed of eight, the Cardinals drew the 37-23 San Diego Padres in the new NL Wild Card Series.
The exhausted, underdog Cardinals took Game 1 and held the lead through the middle of the sixth inning in Game 2 before the pitching sprung a leak. Though the club had ace Jack Flaherty starting in the deciding Game 3, the offense could not score against nine Padres relievers to end the season with a disappointing thud.
Still, when considering everything (of which the above is just a subset), the St. Louis Cardinals had an incredible and admirable 2020.
For further information
If you would like to revisit the various elements of how COVID affected the 2020 season in detailed timeline fashion, please read the following article.
The Cardinal Nation’s Top Five Stories of the Year countdown
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