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

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 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.

“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 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 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.

Tampa Bay outfielder Austin Meadows was placed on the injured list Thursday night after testing positive for the coronavirus.

Meadows was a first-time All-Star last season, batting .291 with 33 homers and 89 RBIs. He had not been seen at Tropicana Field by reporters since working out with the Rays on July 3, the first day of summer camp.

The 25-year-old is the second Tampa Bay player known to have tested positive for the coronavirus. Right-hander Tyler Glasnow joined the team Tuesday after missing 11 days of summer camp.

Star third baseman Yoán Moncada rejoined the Chicago White Sox after missing the start of their summer camp because he tested positive for COVID-19. He said he didn’t experience any major symptoms but it was a difficult time for him and a little scary.

White Sox manager Rick Renteria also is back with the team after leaving camp last week to go home to California for a family funeral.

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

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

Because Martin is on the injured list due to coronavirus, he doesn’t count toward the team’s 40-man roster limit 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 were put 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: four-time All-Star Freddie Freeman, setup 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 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 pitching 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 those 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."

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AP Sports Writers Steve Megargee, Stephen Hawkins, Steven Wine, Kristie Rieken, Charles Odum, Fred Goodall, Jay Cohen and Mike Fitzpatrick contributed.

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