Major League Baseball is just days away from a second attempt at 2020 Opening Day, with the first pitch in a compressed regular season slated for Thursday.
Unlike their NBA and WNBA counterparts who are set to tip in their respective Florida bubbles, the MLB season will commence with games to be played out across the country.
Strict COVID-19 protocols include daily temperature checks and testing every other day for the players, with numerous other restrictions that have resulted in an unusual albeit necessary clubhouse environment, according to Oakland Athletics All-Star closer Liam Hendriks.
“Wearing of masks in the clubhouse is a new one for a lot of people, but it’s being strictly enforced — the trainers aren’t letting anyone into certain areas without wearing a mask,” Hendriks told ESPN.
“If you’re sitting near your locker you just throw a mask on. It doesn’t affect you that much.”
Along with wearing masks, pitchers will adhere to modified rules that include using their own personal rosin bag when on the mound and being allowed to carry a wet towel to avoid licking fingers for moisture while each will use their own set of balls.
These rules and protocols have been mandated with the hope of preventing the virus infecting multiple players on a team. However, with the virus rapidly spreading throughout the country, Hendriks remains well aware of the challenge at hand.
“I don’t think you’ll ever be fully comfortable just knowing what can happen. It could be something as innocuous as going to get a coffee or going to get lunch,” Hendriks said. “You can be doing everything right, you can wear a mask, you take it to go and eat it at your house, but it could be something along those lines where something happens and unfortunately it’s out of your control.
“The way guys on our team are doing everything so far has been really positive from my point of view. We’ve got two players on our team that are high risk. We’ve got a few coaches that are high risk as well, so it’s not just looking out for your own interests — it’s making sure you keep your teammates healthy.
“My wife and I were talking about it, whichever team stay the healthiest regardless of injuries, whichever team stays away from COVID-19, they’ll be the teams that do the best throughout.”
In a career-best 2019 season that saw him named an All-Star for the first time, Hendriks’ ascent to the closing role for the surging Athletics saw his ERA improve from 4.13 in 2018 to 1.80, while he struck out 64 in his 39⅔ innings in the ninth.
Once again set to be a vital cog on an A’s roster with lofty postseason aspirations, Hendriks is searching for the rhythm he gained during spring training back in March.
“Coming out of the first spring training I was locked in and ready to go and then everything changed. I need to find it again a little bit. I’ve had some outings where I’ve been hit, the results have been fine, but I just haven’t felt as crisp as I would have liked,” Hendriks admitted.
“To be honest, my body feels fine, everything feels fine, I think it’s just a bit of a mindset change now where I need to face someone other than our own team to get locked in a little bit.”
That opportunity will come on Tuesday as the A’s face Bay Bridge rivals, the San Francisco Giants, in the first of two exhibition games before opening their season at home against the Los Angeles Angels on Saturday.
Arguably the biggest challenge for A’s longtime manager Bob Melvin will be orchestrating a quick start for his team. Oakland holds a combined 61-59 record over the first 60 games in the past two seasons, before rattling off a 133-71 mark the rest of the way.
“We are down to 37% of the season, so each game pretty much counts for three, if you look at it that way. I don’t know how many games a playoff team is going to have to win. Usually you set the benchmark at around 95, but who knows, it could be 35 or it could be teams winning 40 that advance to the playoffs,” Hendriks said.
“We always get that little bit of complacency in us, thinking ‘We always finish strong, we’ll be fine,’ but now we don’t have that opportunity. We need to come out blazing and take it from there.”
Standing in the way of Oakland’s first World Series appearance since 1990 will be division rivals, and reigning AL champions the Houston Astros, perpetrators of an elaborate sign-stealing scandal that rocked MLB in the offseason.
“I think there’s a lot of guys that have chips on their shoulder and are frustrated about what happened. From my personal point of view, I was mad when it all came out because that cost me not only money, but I gave up runs to them in that period. It could have completely changed my career if I didn’t have the right mindset,” Hendriks said.
“I put that back now because I can’t hold on to grudges, because it’s not a good look on people. But it will be interesting to see how the rest of the league and the rest of the teams deal with it.”
Oakland will meet Houston 10 times during the 2020 regular season, as the A’s desperately try to claim the division title from the Astros and avoid the wild-card playoff game that has sent them packing two years in succession.
“Regardless of everything that happened this offseason, you want to beat them because they’re the reigning American League champs, the reigning AL West champs. That’s our biggest thing: We want to get out of the division, we want to get out of this one-game playoff, because it hasn’t been a friend to us the last couple years,” Hendriks told ESPN.
“Our goal was originally to win the division. That’s still our goal now, but at the end of the day the main goal is to win the World Series. We’ve got the guys in the team, we’ve got the defense, we’ve got the offense, we’ve got the pitching that can do it. Now it’s about stringing it together at the right time.”