MLB playoffs 2021: How the Boston Red Sox overcame a COVID outbreak and made it to the ALCS

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On the last day of August, before the bottom of the second inning in a road game against the Tampa Bay Rays, Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora called his All-Star shortstop off the field.

"Alex never took me out," Xander Bogaerts told ESPN in an interview last week. Bogaerts knew something was wrong. And with a COVID outbreak sweeping through the team's clubhouse, it didn't take long to figure out what it was.

"I knew immediately," he said. "'F---, I got COVID.'"

The loss of Bogaerts dealt a big blow to Boston's morale amidst a tough stretch in the season. In the same way that the confident bravado of David Ortiz and grinder mentality of Dustin Pedroia once defined the Boston clubhouse, Bogaerts is the heart and soul of this team. Every day, he walks into the clubhouse with the same demeanor: a big smile, doling out handshakes and hugs to teammates, always trying to find a silver lining, regardless of how grim things may be.

"I think that's his biggest impact -- just bringing that positive energy every day," said Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers. "Obviously, he has the experience and the knowledge to help other players out, but the energy and his vibe and his attitude, it rubs on all of us."

Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom learned the news of Bogaerts' diagnosis the way many of the team's fans did -- when he saw his shortstop exit the Rays game on television.

Bogaerts was the seventh Red Sox player to hit the COVID IL in the previous five days. For Bloom, watching back home in Boston, that moment marked the low point of the season. Boston was in the thick of a playoff chase, clinging to a wild-card spot, hoping to hold off surges from the New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays, Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics. And now its star shortstop -- and best performer, by half-a-win to that date, according to FanGraphs -- was out for at least 10 days.

Panic rang through Bloom's head.

"It was jarring," Bloom said. "I was shaken."

Between Aug. 27 and Sept. 12, a dozen Red Sox players and two members of the team's support staff tested positive for COVID-19, threatening Boston's ability to field a team on a nightly basis, let alone contend for a playoff spot. Core members of the roster -- from Bogaerts to Kiké Hernández to Chris Sale -- sat out significant periods of time. It was hard to imagine then that the Red Sox would be battling the Houston Astros in the ALCS. But now, they look back at the period that nearly derailed their season as a formative time that reset the team's mindset and propelled them into the postseason.

"The outbreak, which nobody had experienced throughout the course of their careers, we as a group had to come together," Bloom said. "That really served us well down the stretch. ... They had to come together and make it happen."

For weeks prior, team sources admit, the Red Sox did not adhere closely to safety protocol. Players walked around the clubhouse without masks, sitting at tables and playing cards. In early August, bench coach Will Venable tested positive with a breakthrough infection. On Aug. 27, Kiké Hernández, who is also vaccinated and self-identifies as "patient zero," became the first Red Sox player to test positive -- and set off a chain reaction that would last for weeks.

Two days later, the team had a rain delay in Cleveland on Aug. 29, which sources describe as a key factor in the spread, with players huddled together indoors for three hours. That day, second baseman Christian Arroyo tested positive, alongside strength and conditioning coach Kiyoshi Momose. Relievers Martín Pérez, Matt Barnes and quality control coach Ramón Vázquez tested positive while reliever Josh Taylor quarantined as a close contact on Aug. 30, and reliever Hirokazu Sawamura and Bogaerts tested positive the next day.

The outbreak took a mental toll on Bogaerts, impacting his play on the field even before he tested positive himself. In the five games between Hernández's and Bogaerts' positive tests, the Red Sox shortstop struggled at the plate, hitting .222 (he averaged .295 in the regular season) and striking out eight times in 18 plate appearances.

"I was just stressing out a lot," Bogaerts said. "We had a lot of stuff with the COVID going on. I wasn't playing well for a while."

The Red Sox updated their COVID protocols. Masking around the team increased, with meetings moving from clubhouses to the stands. Groups for batting practice got smaller. Tests occurred daily. But despite the heightened precautions, the virus continued to spread.

Sept. 1 brought a positive test for utilityman Yairo Muñoz, and outfielder Jarren Duran hit the COVID IL on Sept. 3. Pitcher Nick Pivetta and utilityman Danny Santana followed on Sept. 5, then Sale -- who had also tested positive during the offseason -- and Jonathan Araúz on Sept. 10. Reliever Phillips Valdez was the 12th and final player to test positive, on Sept. 12.

On the day Hernández tested positive, Boston had a 74-56 record, third in the American League East behind the Yankees. The Red Sox had already been struggling, slowly descending from their perch atop the AL East, where they'd spent the majority of the first half of the season.

"I was concerned," Bogaerts said. "A lot of our regular players were out -- me, Kiké, a lot of the regular position players were out. We were hoping that none of the other guys like Devers were going to go out because it wouldn't have been nice."

The time in quarantine forced Bogaerts to sit alone with his thoughts.

"The hardest part was the earlier days," Bogaerts said in an early September interview. "You're seeing day one, day two, I've got like eight or nine more to go. Those are the hard ones. The beginning ones. Once you start getting to day seven or day eight, you start getting anxious. You can't wait to get back."

Over the next few weeks, Boston shuffled its roster to compensate for the 12 players who went on the COVID list, with mixed results. Jonathan Araúz -- who had played just 14 games before August 17 -- filled in middle infield spots, doubling his game total between Aug. 17 and Sept. 8. Boston claimed utility man Taylor Motter (2-for-6 and three runs scored in three games with Red Sox) off of waivers from the Colorado Rockies, and signed José Iglesias (.356/.406/.508 in 23 games) after he was released from the Angels.

The team rounded out the pitching staff with players like Brad Peacock (5.1 innings pitched, nine runs allowed), Michael Feliz (5.1 innings, two runs allowed), Connor Seabold (three innings, two runs allowed in one game) and John Schreiber (three innings, one run allowed).

With a roster full of replacements and no room for error in an ever-tightening wild-card race, Boston continued on with a next-man-up mentality, a mindset that Cora said fueled the team's ability to rack up a league-leading number of comeback wins.

"Those guys filled in nicely," Bogaerts said. "They're not guys that are going to hit homers and be as productive as the regular players, but they put down their bunts and made the plays defensively and they stepped up and helped everything balance out."

After posting a 15-18 record in the 33 games before Hernandez went on the IL, the Red Sox finished the season 19-14 -- a month that included a superstitious winning streak wearing yellow City Connect uniforms. They relied on one of the league's best offenses while hoping for results from a bend-but-don't-break pitching staff -- and eventually clinched a wild-card berth on the final day of the regular season.

For Bloom, the outbreak required the team to maintain focus amid the chaos.

"The stories are easy to write in retrospect," Bloom said. "There were a lot of points at the end of September where they could have folded the tent and they didn't. Some of that has to do with coming together and making it happen after that low point in St. Pete. Rebounding from that and finding a way, some of that built resilience and the ability to go forward and take some punches and keep going."

When Bogaerts returned from the COVID list, he flourished as the offensive anchor of the Boston lineup, hitting .271/.393/.443 with three homers in 20 games. It's been more of the same in the playoffs, where he had a home run in the Red Sox' wild-card win against the Yankees and batted .333 with another home run against the Rays in the ALDS.

Bogaerts said the forced time away gave him some renewed perspective. "It helped me relax a little bit," he said. "Made me appreciate the game a lot more."

Looking back, Cora said Bogaerts' trip to the COVID IL pressed a reset button for him -- and, possibly, for the entire Red Sox season.

"It was a tough day," Cora said. "In this business, it's 162 games and for as hard as it was, we had to turn the page. ... Xander was out for 10 days but after that, he reset and recharged and finished strong. We are in the business of seeing the glass always half full."