CHICAGO – After weeks of uncertainty, John Mozeliak watched the St. Louis Cardinals drop off their rental cars and prepare for work. His cell phone was filled with encouraging baseball messages instead of questions of concern.
For Mozeliak, the club's president of baseball operations, it was a very good day.
“Today feels very much like opening day for the St. Louis Cardinals,” Mozeliak said.
St. Louis returned to the field Saturday for the first time in 17 days after its season was derailed by a coronavirus outbreak. The reigning NL Central champions swept a doubleheader against the Chicago White Sox, kicking off an extended stay in the Windy City and a busy finish to the pandemic-shortened season.
The Cardinals headed into the weekend having played all of five games this season, winning two.
“I think this whole thing is a game of adjustments,” said pitcher Adam Wainwright, the winning pitcher in Game 1 against the White Sox. “Obviously we had to tighten the ship a lot, but guys were trying to do the right thing before. You know, we sat inside during the game, trying to stay out of the dugout. Everybody had their masks on and used hand sanitizer and stuff, but unfortunately this thing is very contagious. It's easy to pass.”
The Cardinals had a much different look from the team that lost 3-0 at Minnesota on July 29 in their previous game. Star catcher Yadier Molina and infielder Paul DeJong were among 10 players and 18 members of the organization overall with confirmed coronavirus cases, shaking up the roster and coaching staff.
Top prospect Dylan Carlson was brought up from the team’s alternate training site in Springfield, Missouri, along with first baseman John Nogowski, right-hander Seth Elledge, and left-handers Ricardo Sánchez and Rob Kaminsky. Sánchez was designated the 29th man for Saturday's doubleheader.
The 21-year-old Carlson, a switch-hitting outfielder, doubled in the second game for his first major league hit. Max Schrock made his big league debut in Game 2 and collected two hits. Jake Woodford started the second game and pitched three innings of one-run ball in his first appearance in the majors.
The Cardinals also added José Oquendo and Roberto Espinoza to their coaching staff, a day after Willie McGee announced he had opted out of the rest of the season. McGee was in his third year as a coach with the team.
“I think we all know that we're in an historic situation here, but we're also very present minded. We always are,” manager Mike Shildt said. "It's not easy. We do recognize that clearly this is unprecedented on a lot of levels.
“But the fact of the matter is we're going to stay present. We're going to stay together. We're going to enjoy what we're doing and we're going to get after the moment.”
Left-hander Austin Gomber was placed on the injured list. Gomber has not tested positive for COVID-19, but came up as a potential concern in contact tracing.
“Now he’ll use the weekend to get going again,” Mozeliak said on a video conference call. “He was actually cleared officially yesterday, so he was able to get on the field.”
The Cardinals were able to work out five times while they waited to play again, including three individualized workouts. They were supposed to open the series against the White Sox on Friday, but the opener was pushed back a day.
The team traveled to Chicago in 41 rental cars as an added precaution. Shildt was the last one to hit the road, making the trip in a GMC Yukon because it was the only vehicle left.
“I mean at this point, you almost laugh at everything that you have to do,” Wainwright said. “It's just a sign of the times. We're in a weird phase right now. We just got to do what we got to do, so everybody had a great attitude about it, honestly.”
Shildt said he spent part of the trip thinking about how he will navigate a dizzying finish to the season that includes 21 games over the last half of August and 32 more in September. After Sunday's series finale against the White Sox, the Cardinals move to the north side of Chicago for five games against the division-leading Cubs, including doubleheaders on Monday and Wednesday.
But, after what they confronted while they were away, the Cardinals were looking on the positive side. They are playing again, after all. They also will confront their closing stretch with expanded active rosters, including 29 for their seven-inning doubleheaders.
“Do I think it's doable? Yes. Do I think it's daunting? Yes. Am I glad we get the opportunity to do it? Yes,” Mozeliak said.
Jay Cohen can be reached at https://twitter.com/jcohenap
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