In a division such as the AL East where every game counts, the Red Sox losing players like Tanner Houck and Chris Sale due to their vaccination status can make all the difference
The American League East was the most competitive division in baseball last season. For the first time in the Wild Card era, four teams in a division each won at least 91 games. The battle for who would claim the final playoff spot came down to the last inning of the season’s last game, when the Boston Red Sox used a two-run home run by Rafael Devers to complete a comeback against the Washington Nationals.
It was the Red Sox 92nd win of the season, moving them past the Toronto Blue Jays into second place in the division and a home Wild Card matchup with the rival New York Yankees. The Red Sox postseason run last October would extend all the way to the sixth game of the ALCS. They did it, mostly, with a full complement of their star players, including a returning Chris Sale—back from Tommy John surgery in August after missing two years—and the emergence of Tanner Houck, with his sweeping right-handed motion drawing comparisons to his left-handed teammate.
Red Sox COVID-19 issues could haunt them
They might not have the same luxury in 2022. Sale and Houck are two Red Sox known to be unvaccinated for COVID-19. Their status means, unless the rules change between now and October, they won’t be able to join their teammates when the Red Sox head north to play the Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre at all this year. And there could be more; manager Alex Cora admitted on Sunday that the Red Sox will be without some key players when they make their first trip to Toronto next week, without indicating who. Last year, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic included the Red Sox on a list of four teams that had yet to meet MLB’s 85 percent vaccination threshold.
Canadian federal government regulations, which came into effect in January, require everyone crossing the border to be fully vaccinated (the same rules apply when traveling to the United States from Canada, but the Blue Jays are fully vaccinated). Two teams have traveled to Toronto this season: the Texas Rangers didn’t have any absences, while the Oakland Athletics were without three players for the series. Any player who can’t travel will be put on the restricted list and won’t be paid or accrue service time.
The Red Sox make three trips to Toronto this year for a total of 10 games. Their first trip begins next Monday. Houck’s turn in the rotation was to be on Tuesday. Now Cora and the Red Sox will have to find someone to take his place.
“I think it’s a personal choice for everyone whether they get it or not,” Houck told the Boston Globe’s Julian McWilliams on Sunday. “I’m definitely bummed that I won’t be able to make that start. But the starts that I am able to make, I plan on giving 100 percent for this team, if not more so. Anything I can do for this team to help them win, I’ll do it.”
Sale, who is rehabbing a stress fracture in his ribs and won’t return until June at the earliest, also won’t be able to play in the Red Sox next two series in Toronto, from June 27-29 and Sept. 30-Oct. 2. But the absence of a starting pitcher can easily be worked around, their scheduled start pushed back a few days. What will make the mandate more onerous on the Red Sox (and the Yankees, Rays, and Orioles), is if an everyday position player can’t play. While who is vaccinated or not is largely speculation, the Red Sox lineup could take a hit next week in three important games against a division rival.
COVID-19 is already impacting the Red Sox clubhouse. Backup catcher Kevin Plawecki—who is vaccinated—along with two staff members tested positive on Monday before the Patriots’ Day meeting with the Minnesota Twins at Fenway Park.
Missing players could help determine the AL East
Every game in the AL East takes on added importance. In 2021, the Red Sox, Yankees, and Blue Jays were separated by only a single game in the standings. Boston’s last win in Toronto last year came in the second game of a doubleheader on Aug. 7. That game, won by the Red Sox in extra innings, was started by Houck, who held the Blue Jays lineup to one run and struck out six in 3.2 innings. The Red Sox took the season series against the Blue Jays 10-9, all the difference they needed to make the playoffs and keep Toronto out. One game out of 162 changed everything.
The Blue Jays likely won’t have any sympathy for the plight of their AL East rivals. The same COVID restrictions kept them from playing at home for nearly two years. Instead, they were forced to play all of the 2020 season and most of 2021 in their Spring Training complex in Dunedin and their Triple-A ballpark in Buffalo. Crowds, when they were finally allowed, often cheered for the other club, especially when the Red Sox and Yankees were in town. The Blue Jays went 22-22 at “home” in Dunedin and Buffalo last season; finally allowed back at the Rogers Centre in July, they closed the year 25-11 at home.
Pandemic restrictions likely kept the Blue Jays out of the playoffs in 2021. They might do the same to the Red Sox in 2022, for every missed start by someone like Sale or Houck is a missed opportunity. And, in the AL East, every opportunity counts by October.