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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

MLB players must be able to adjust to any curves season throws at them

A view of Oriole Park at Camden Yards

A view of Oriole Park at Camden Yards during an Orioles intrasquad game on July 9 in Baltimore. Credit: Getty Images/Greg Fiume

A few hours before Wednesday’s first pitch, the Yankees learned that Orioles slugger Chris Davis would not be in that night’s lineup for the Camden Yards home opener after playing all three games at Fenway Park over the weekend.

Davis wasn’t even in the building, according to O’s manager Brandon Hyde. His status? “Unavailable,” was Hyde’s cryptic response.

If the story sounds familiar, you may remember Opening Day, when the Nationals announced that Juan Soto had tested positive for COVID-19 that same morning. Poof! Gone.

Players vanishing one minute, returning the next. Sometimes a reason is given, sometimes not. These days, in the era of Coronaball, the sport is ever-changing, from rosters, to rules, to the schedule itself.

We thought it was crazy when MLB officially unveiled an entirely different playoff format -- expanding to 16 teams from the original 10 -- after the season already had started. The Yankees-Nats game was in the third inning.

Turns out, that was only a hint of the chaos to follow.

Since then, the Marlins have been quarantined right out of the league -- we’re told until early next week -- after 18 members (and counting) of their traveling party tested positive. The outbreak percolated during the team’s weekend stay in Philadelphia and created a domino effect that disrupted four other teams.

As a result, the Phillies were put on pause until Saturday -- when the barnstorming Blue Jays will be the home team at Citizens Bank Park -- the Nats have the weekend off and the Yankees got shipped to Baltimore (from Philly) for a hastily-arranged, two-game series that didn’t previously exist on the schedule.

“The way I put it, you’ve got to stay in the athletic position -- ready for anything,” manager Aaron Boone said before Wednesday’s game. “Obviously, we prepare very hard for the opponent we're gonna play. We were getting ready for the Phillies and then had to pivot.

“But I feel like our players understand that it's going to be a little bit different. They've been great at making adjustments and understanding just how different the nature of the season is. But we need to perform under it. We've got to be in position to deal with that. I have a lot of confidence in our staff and our players to be able to make quick adjustments on the fly.”

How’s this for on the fly? When the Yankees travel to Tampa at the end of next week, they’re likely playing a doubleheader, due to one of the dates now being occupied by a makeup game with the Phillies. And we don’t know yet how many innings that doubleheader will be. The Players Association has asked MLB to consider having two seven-inning games -- or maybe a nine and seven -- to ease wear-and-tear during this accelerated season.

I’ve always believed that was an idea worth considering. I just never envisioned tossing yet another rule change into the middle of these 60 games, especially one that dramatically alters how the sport is played. Like it or not, sticking a runner on second base for extra innings was at least implemented well before Opening Day. Now relievers could be getting only a few days notices with the Phillies and Jays already scheduled for a doubleheader on Saturday.

“I like nine and nine, personally,” Adam Ottovino said Wednesday afternoon. “I don't want to be marginalized out of the game. Once we go seven-inning games, it’s a slippery slope there. But I understand the purpose of it, to try to make it a little less taxing on everybody. So I'm just going to be in adapt mode, whatever the situation.”

Just seven days old, the season has gone sideways, and everyone is trying to adjust their mindset to avoid sliding off the edge. Nick Markakis, who opted out seeing teammate Freddie Freeman’s scary bout with COVID-19, changed his mind and rejoined the Braves on Wednesday. Mike Moustakas and Nick Senzel were allowed to return to the Reds after testing negative, as was Soto, who finally got the back-to-back negatives he needed.

Amid all this virus-related upheaval, Dodgers reliever Joe Kelly still reminded us that some things never change -- and a few people out there haven’t forgotten about the Astros’ cheating their way to the ’17 title. Kelly received an eight-game suspension Wednesday for throwing at Alex Bregman and also taunting Carlos Correa, which led to the benches emptying -- a major no-no according to the coronaball protocols.

During this truncated season, Kelly’s ban equates to 21.6 games of a regular 162-game schedule, so that should be trimmed significantly upon appeal. Whatever Kelly winds up getting for his obvious revenge tactics, however, it will still be more of a punishment than any of the Astros’ players received from commissioner Rob Manfred. But what else should we expect from this 2020 season?

“Anything’s possible,” Ottavino said.

New York Sports