WASHINGTON — In the last Major League Baseball game of 2020, the Los Angeles Dodgers were forced to remove third baseman Justin Turner from the final moments of the World Series after learning that he had tested positive for the coronavirus.
It was one of many positive tests that M.L.B. had to grapple with during a shortened season, and there is hope that 2021, with a complete schedule of 162 games and some fans allowed to attend, will feel at least a little more normal.
But as the league prepared for its opening day on Thursday, it was reminded that the problem had not gone away. The Washington Nationals announced on Wednesday that one of their players had tested positive for the coronavirus and that, because of contact-tracing protocols, four more players and one staff member who had close contact with that player would also be held out of their game against the visiting Mets on Thursday.
The Nationals did not name the player who tested positive or the others who are in the protocols, but Mike Rizzo, the team’s general manager, said he had learned of the positive test at about 1:20 a.m. on Wednesday. The team flew back to Washington on Monday after its last spring-training game.
The positive test also occurred on Monday, Rizzo said. He added that the team had no positive test results during the six weeks of spring training.
Team personnel were given more tests on Wednesday, but Rizzo said he did not have the results when he spoke to reporters on Wednesday afternoon. It is possible the number of players in the protocols could change before Thursday’s game, but Rizzo said the game was not likely to be postponed.
“We’ve got a long season ahead of us,” Rizzo said. “The difference this year is it’s 162 and we are ready for the long haul. This is just a small blip on our radar screen. We are going to handle it and take it in stride.”
Max Scherzer, the scheduled starting pitcher for the Nationals on Thursday, said that he had flown back with his family, separately from the team, and that he still expected to pitch.
“We had done so well in spring training, everyone across the game,” Scherzer said. “We had seen so few positive cases across spring training as a whole. It just shows how quickly that can turn.”
Last year Juan Soto, the Nationals’ star outfielder, missed the first eight games of the season after he tested positive for the coronavirus before the team’s season opener against the Yankees. Soto later said he thought it was a false positive.
Also in 2020, M.L.B. suspended activities during spring training in March because of the pandemic. When the league returned in July to start its 60-game regular season, several teams had games postponed because of positive tests.
Turner’s positive test forced him to be taken out of Game 6 of the World Series before the start of the eighth inning. He was criticized for coming back onto the field to join the Dodgers’ championship celebration, especially because he appeared in a team photograph without a face mask.
Baseball executives, players, staff members and fans all remain hopeful for a more normal season this year, but the revelation of the positive test on Wednesday served as a reminder to keep expectations in check.
“It will be a little more normal than it was last year,” Rizzo said of opening day, “but certainly a long way from normal.”