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Orioles players, coaches feel safe in baseball’s coronavirus return as testing protocol falters around the league

Oriole's outfielder Austin Hays talked about the safety measures the team is taking to fight the coronavirus.

With workouts canceled across baseball due to problems with MLB’s coronavirus testing procedures over the holiday weekend and more players testing positive for the virus or deciding not to play because of it each day, Orioles players and coaches are presenting a picture of a relative oasis from the issues of restarting the game in a pandemic that seem to be jeopardizing the season elsewhere.

Down the highway in Washington, the World Series champion Nationals canceled Monday’s workout because Friday’s set of COVID-19 test results were never returned from the league. Same goes for their World Series opponents, the Houston Astros, who along with the Oakland Athletics had to adjust their plans because test results weren’t processed in a timely manner.

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In Atlanta, former Orioles star Nick Markakis decided he wouldn’t play in 2020 after talking to Braves teammate Freddie Freeman, who not only tested positive but also is dealing with some symptoms of the virus.

MLB said in a statement that 98 percent of the 3,740 intake tests from the week between June 27 and July 3 had results reported back to the club, many the day after testing, though 86 samples were still pending Monday morning. Those that weren’t returned were attributed to shipping delays due to the holiday weekend, the league said.

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”The process has not been without some unforeseen difficulties, which are being addressed with the service providers that are essential to the execution of the protocols,” the league said. “It is important to be mindful that nearly all of the individuals have been tested as planned.”

None of that seems to be a factor at Orioles camp, where all but a handful of players have participated in the open portion of workouts so far, but manager Brandon Hyde said the organization will not be publicizing whether there were any positive tests, per an internal team decision.

“I’ve been really happy with how things are going here. We’ve been lucky enough not to have those issues,” Hyde said Monday after a workout in which many of his pitchers faced live hitting once again in both morning and afternoon sessions at Camden Yards.

“I’m really excited about how camp is going for us. I think our guys, I was just telling [executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias], our guys are ready to play intrasquad and ready to get going. These first few days have gone really smooth, and credit to our coaching staff. [Head athletic trainer] Brian Ebel is the MVP of camp, what he’s been doing, and our strength staff and Brian’s staff. We’re really happy with how things have gone so far.”

Outfielder Austin Hays said he’s been following the players deciding not to play or testing positive both before he reported to Baltimore last week and since, but wanted to see what it would look like for himself.

“I wanted to come around the facility and get to see what the environment was going to look like,” Hays said. “After being here for a couple days and seeing how much time and effort has gone in from all the staff and all the clubhouse personnel and all the adjustments they’ve been able to make to make it the safest environment possible under the circumstances. I feel very comfortable and very safe here.”

He said he’s been tested three times in five days, in line with the every-other-day testing procedure MLB planned out in prescribing its restart protocols with teams. The Orioles being able to stay on that schedule seems to place them on the fortunate side as other teams have had to adjust schedules after pickup and delivery problems for their test samples.

The players and coaches, however, are aware of that. Hyde said social media means “as soon as somebody opts out or a team’s workout gets canceled, it’s posted and everybody knows about it.”

Hays said he has followed all that as well, but can only go by his own experience at Oriole Park. Here, hitters and pitchers are separated in different clubhouses, players work out in small groups, and layout changes to the weight room and food room promote physical distancing.

“Just off my personal experience here so far and how few of guys testing positive we’ve had, and just how the players are reacting to all of this stuff on our team and how we’re handling it and how safe everybody is being, and just how cautious everything is, I do feel really safe here even though there’s been a lot of players testing positive around the year,” Hays said.

Players who test positive for COVID-19 can choose to identify themselves, but if they opt not to make their cases known, the team can still say whether there are positive tests in their ranks or not. The Orioles have decided not to do that, Hyde said, and he noted Sunday that Elias would address the team’s testing later this week.

Through the fourth day of workouts, most of which have featured the club’s hitters taking live batting practice during the open portion, nearly all of the 45 players in camp have taken part in some way. For others, Hyde has said they’ve faced hitters or done bullpen sessions in the morning. The only two position players not participating in the open portion are outfielders Dwight Smith Jr. and Anthony Santander; every pitcher has been accounted for or said in an interview that they’re participating.

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Once a health baseline is set for the Orioles, it will be on the players to maintain it on and off the field.

“I think everything we’ve been doing so far is definitely sustainable,” Hays said. “I think just the precautions that all of us are taking right now if we continue to just be proactive with that and make smart decisions when we’re away from the field, and basically just quarantine ourselves — we go back and basically you don’t see anybody besides your family or whoever you live with in your apartment or hotel room, I think we can continue to see the positive results that we have seen.”

Said Hyde: “We have to have a lot of communication. We’re in two clubhouses, guys are coming in different times, so there’s a lot of scheduling quirks that we have to do. But we have to make sure everybody is on the same page, and it comes from a lot of communication, not only in the coaches room, players, training staff, strength staff, so it’s challenging because it’s so much different than we’re used to. I think we’re handling it well, and so far so, good.”

Around the horn

Hyde said starting pitchers Alex Cobb and Wade LeBlanc faced hitters Tuesday morning before the open portion of workouts, with each going four innings and coming out of it well. In the afternoon, Cesar Valdez, Hector Velázquez, Mychal Givens, Paul Fry, Travis Lakins Sr. and Shawn Armstrong faced a group of hitters that included Chris Davis, José Iglesias and Rio Ruiz. … The Orioles will begin intrasquad games at Camden Yards on Wednesday night.

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