TORONTO – Between extended idle periods caused by COVID-19 havoc and the increasingly restrictive protocols governing player actions on and off the field this summer, respites from the difficulties of pandemic life have been hard to come by for Tanner Roark.
“This is a complete and total mental grind on and off the field, especially with most of us not able to see our families for quite some time,” the Toronto Blue Jays right-hander said this week during his nine-day break between starts. “It’s definitely grinding on both sides, but once you step out on the field it feels like the normalcy of baseball, pitching and competing.”
A reunion with his family earlier this week, after a month apart from his wife and kids aged 10, 5 and nearly 2, eased one of those pressure points, although the other was ratcheted up by a messy three-inning, four-run, five-walk start Friday in a 5-3 loss to the Boston Red Sox.
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Many of the concerns Roark cited in the lead-up to his outing – like the difficulties in finding rhythm and maintaining a feel for his pitches (“You can’t simulate the time off, that’s what sucks about it,” he said) – all came to pass at Fenway Park.
He walked four of his first five batters, immediately giving back a 1-0 lead Cavan Biggio’s leadoff homer provided, and even though he limited damage by inducing a Christian Vazquez double play, he never really settled in. Alex Verdugo took him deep to lead off the second on a changeup left up in the happy zone, while Mitch Moreland did the same to another in the third, a two-run shot that opened up a 4-2 Red Sox lead.
A lineup shuffle by manager Charlie Montoyo paid some immediate dividends, as Biggio took to the leadoff spot with a homer in the first and a single in the third, scoring on a Bo Bichette double. But the Blue Jays ran themselves into three outs on the bases, including twice making the first out of an inning at third base.
There was also a strike-him-out-throw-him-out twin-kill in the second, which proved costly, as after Randal Grichuk was caught stealing, Teoscar Hernandez followed with a two-out double.
Anthony Alford gave the Blue Jays some strong baserunning in the eighth, coming on as a pinch-runner for Rowdy Tellez and promptly stealing both second and third, only to be stranded when Grichuk hit into an inning-ending double play.
Verdugo homered off Dolis in the bottom half, leaped over the right-field wall to steal a home run from Travis Shaw in the ninth, and the Blue Jays’ fifth loss in six games was sealed.
This series against the Red Sox marks the end of what turned into a three-week road trip that started when the Blue Jays left their camp in Toronto on July 20 for a pair of exhibition games in Boston. They’ve since been to Tampa Bay, Washington — where they got stuck after a series with Philadelphia was cancelled — and Atlanta, and will arrive at their temporary home in Buffalo on Sunday night after quite the odyssey.
Along the way, outbreaks with the Miami Marlins, in particular, and St. Louis Cardinals led to a strengthening of the protocols by Major League Baseball this week, with the memo warning that anyone “found to have repeatedly or flagrantly violated the protocols, including refusing to wear a face covering when required and reminded to do so, risks being prohibited from further participation in the 2020 season and post-season.”
Among the revisions are:
• Stipulations that staff and players wear face coverings “at all times and in all places” except for players on the field of play, and time spent indoors “be kept to an absolute minimum”;
• A requirement for clubs to set up outdoor, covered spaces for visiting players and staff;
• A reduction of traveling parties to only those essential for games, as certified by the Club Compliance Officers;
• A requirement that staff and players wear face coverings while in their hotels and whenever they’re in public on the road;
• Approval for all departures from the team hotel by the Club’s Compliance Officer to determine the risk and whether it meets the code of conduct;
• Two employees from baseball’s contract security vendor will monitor each team’s hotel for 16 hours a day, while the Commissioner’s Office will have others monitor clubhouses to ensure protocol compliance;
• Surgical masks or N95/KN95 respirators must be worn on buses and airplanes, with time spent with masks removed for eating or drinking to be minimized;
• And, while at home, staff and players “are prohibited from visiting bars, lounges, malls, or other places” where bigger crowds congregate.
Each measure is meant to counter the exposure risks that exist playing outside a bubble, but as restrictions tighten, the benefits of being outside the safety of a real bubble diminish.
Regardless, outside of the ballpark, there isn’t much for everyone involved to do.
“The good thing is I’m a gamer, I can sit here and play PlayStation and be fine,” Roark said. “I can have a cocktail or two, smoke a cigar every now and again. We’ll see how it goes from here.”
Roark likes playing sci-fi games, although he said Rocket League is currently “one of my go-to’s.”
“I’ll explain that one real quick – you’re a car, playing soccer against other guys,” Roark said. “It sounds dumb – but it’s fun.”
More fun, surely, than what’s happening on the field right now for the Blue Jays.