There was no sun to blame for the Red Sox’ latest rout at the hands of the Rays, no outfield mistakes to pass off as culprits for ending up on the wrong side of another lopsided score. The baseballs that kept clanging off the Green Monster or sailing over Fenway’s other outfield walls were never going to be caught anyway, no matter what was in the sky or who was standing in the field.
No, on this night, the Red Sox defense was just fine, reset as it was around the return of Kiké Hernández in center field. Too bad the pitching was not.
It was great news for the Red Sox that Hernández was back from his 10-day COVID quarantine, but not even his willingness to run into walls or his prescience in backing up his outfield teammates was enough to offset a bad night on the mound, when 11 of Tampa Bay’s 14 hits went for extra bases, more than enough to hand the Red Sox a 12-7 loss. Clearly the class of the AL East, the Rays keep winning, and the Red Sox and Yankees keep losing (New York lost a game as well as ace starter Gerrit Cole to hamstring tightness Tuesday night). Suddenly, the one-game wild-card date the longstanding rivals seemed destined to keep might just be crashed by the surging Blue Jays.
For now, the Sox still control their fate, but as the rest of their COVID quarantiners are slowly cleared to follow in Hernández’s path and the calendar counts down the 21 games remaining, time is running short.
On Tuesday, it was Hernández’s return that gave them hope, his spot atop the batting order and space in center field a seeming bounce of good fortune after Monday afternoon’s defensive debacle. It’s no wonder manager Alex Cora practically oozed relief as he described how a left-to-right outfield of Alex Verdugo, Hernández, and Hunter Renfroe would make the Sox immediately less prone to surrendering any more of the Little League or inside-the-park-variety home runs that torpedoed their Labor Day effort.
Alas, Hernández alone couldn’t spur the team to victory Tuesday. He didn’t get a hit but did get five at-bats on the way to getting his feet back under him, at-bats Cora described as “a good step.” But in recounting the 10 days he spent alone in a Cleveland hotel, Hernández proved himself a winner regardless, heartfelt words that served as a reminder that wisdom and leadership can be found beyond what happens on the field.
First, Hernández thanked the vaccine that he’d gotten, one he felt assured his symptoms remained mild. Second, he expressed concern for his teammates, hoping he hadn’t been “patient zero” to an outbreak that sidelined as many as 11 players. Third (and more on this in a minute), he described the charming way in which he and his fellow quarantiners stayed connected to the rest of the team.
Which gets us to fourth, in which Hernández reflected on how much he loves playing this game, and how important it is to appreciate it while he can.
“The game got taken away from me for 10 days,” he said. “It puts things into perspective.
“Every day that you’re in the big leagues, you need to enjoy this thing, because this career just goes by so quickly. I always talk about how much I embrace being in the big leagues, and trying to have as much fun as I can on a daily basis. But those are the days, those are the times, that it really brings it back to you, where you need to enjoy this on a daily basis. It’s a long season. It’s a long grind. You go through good runs, bad runs. And you know, you’re still living the dream. You’re still playing in the big leagues. So I think I, not learned, but it was a reminder that I need to really enjoy this every single day.”
Clearly, Hernández missed baseball, so much so that he dressed in his uniform while watching games in his hotel room (passing the rest of his days with room service, coffee, showers, Netflix, baths, and playing games on his phone). The hours in front of the television were tough because of how much he wanted to be playing, but they were special too, spent sharing video chats with some of his similarly quarantined teammates.
“I just pretended like I was at the game. I’d put on my pants, put on my top, my hat, and I’d wear a mask just as if I was in the dugout and I would start FaceTiming guys, try to lighten up the mood,” he said. “And it was cool to see how engaged everybody was watching the games, you know, they weren’t just shutting it down and doing their own thing. Everybody was engaged. As not cool as it was, it was kind of cool.”
The number of Sox players who remain unvaccinated is decidedly not cool. Maybe some will hear, and heed, the warning in Hernández’s words. Sports can be cruel enough in finding ways to rob a player’s health, with the threat of injury always hovering overhead. Opening the door to getting robbed of opportunity is a risk not worth taking, because that door can close in your absence. Ask Wally Pipp. Ask Cam Newton. And never forget that contracting COVID-19 can be physically debilitating, even to a professional athlete with no obvious mitigating health factors. Ask Tuesday night’s Red Sox starter, Eduardo Rodriguez.
Hernández was grateful he didn’t get sicker after the fatigue, muscle soreness, and eventually the chest congestion he was experiencing resulted in the positive test.
“The first day and a half was pretty miserable and then after that the symptoms kind of drifted away,” he said. “I guess I’m glad that I was vaccinated because this thing got me pretty good for a day and a half. I’ve heard from some other people not just in baseball but throughout this whole thing that have felt symptoms for way more than a day and a half. I guess I got lucky on that side.”