How Rays are navigating the latest COVID-19 outbreak: ‘It’s been crazy’

OAKLAND, Calif. — As usual, Kyle Snyder is working extensively to help his Rays pitchers prepare for each game.

He has highlighted the key parts of the scouting reports on the opposing hitters, noted keys and cues for the starters on how their stuff matches up, and checked in with the pitchers on how their arms are feeling.

It’s just been harder to do from his St. Petersburg home.

“I feel helpless,” he said.

Snyder is one of four Rays coaches who have been sidelined since Saturday, after the team asked all staff in the traveling party to take COVID-19 tests.

The virus had been coursing through the clubhouse for more than a week, sidelining a dozen or so staff members, plus a few players, due to symptoms, close contacts and, in some cases, positive tests. Catcher Francisco Mejia has been out nearly two weeks.

Team officials wanted to be precautious before they boarded a five-plus-hour flight after Sunday’s game to start a 10-day, three-city West Coast road trip that would include a lot of time together.

Snyder, their esteemed pitching coach, was among those who tested positive. Rather than working Saturday afternoon’s game at Tropicana Field, he was sent to a nearby BayCare facility for a follow-up test to confirm the results, then told he would be staying home for at least the first part of the trip.

Bullpen coach Stan Boroski, field coordinator/catching coach Paul Hoover and bench coach Matt Quatraro were similarly sidelined, waiting to test again in a few days to see if they will be cleared to return.

“It’s very difficult to watch the games from afar,” Quatraro said via text.

Snyder has been doing his usual prep work and sending scouting reports via texts or email to each pitcher and the catchers, as well as his words of encouragement before and after games he is watching (uncomfortably) on TV.

Knowing Drew Rasmussen, who started Monday’s 6-1 win over the A’s, likes to have a card with notes to refer to between innings, Snyder typed out some cues and tips on how the right-hander’s stuff matched up with Oakland’s hitters and emailed them to video coordinator Chris “Chico” Fernandez with instructions to print the notes on card stock and have them available in the dugout.

That the Rays recently played the A’s and Mariners, who they face starting Thursday, helps ease the burden. If Snyder is still working from home next Monday, when the Rays go to Anaheim, Calif., to play the Angels for the first time this season, he likely will do a Zoom video conference with the pitchers to go over the hitters.

Snyder understands the need for the COVID-19 protocols, but the fact that he doesn’t feel any symptoms adds to his misery. “We’re trying to support the pitchers as much as normal as if we were there,” he said. “It’s just very frustrating.”

The team has had to make some adjustments to compensate for the missing staffers and is evaluating daily whether it needs more help, general manager Peter Bendix said.

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Rick Knapp, the assistant coach whose duties are primarily to oversee pitchers rehabbing from injuries, has stepped into Snyder’s role. (The fact that Knapp was at Triple-A Durham the last four years and is familiar with the pitchers and Snyder, and their methods and messaging, makes that easier. As does his three years’ experience as a big-league pitching coach for the Tigers.)

Assistant coaches Dan DeMent and Brady North, who typically spend games working in the batting cages with hitters, moved into the dugout to provide support to manager Kevin Cash. (Plus, there is no access to the cage during games in Oakland, so players get loose hitting balls into a small net in the clubhouse.)

Bullpen catcher Misha Dworken, in his eighth season, has been handling bullpen coach duties, answering the phone, prepping the relievers with scouting information and reminding them of game situations.

At home, Zac Law, the rehab catcher, filled in when they needed to warm up two relievers. In Oakland, with the bullpen along the rightfield foul line, Cash planned to send whichever catcher wasn’t in the game down to help if needed. They will need a different plan in Seattle, with the bullpens beyond the outfield fence.

Plus, the Rays have had a handful of personnel, some with key game-day roles, sidelined from the baseball operations, medical, logistics and clubhouse staffs. Some are flying west as they are cleared this week, while others are still dealing with severe symptoms.

Still others were out just because Bendix said the team is being “extra cautious.” For example, Spanish interpreter Manny Navarro was kept away from the team for several days when he was feeling sick, even though he repeatedly tested negative for COVID-19.

“It’s been crazy,” Cash said. “It’s been a lot crazier for (head athletic trainer) Joe Benge and our medical group than it has for me. I feel for all of our coaches, because they really want to be here. And we want them here. We need them here. We’re better with them here. Now, we just have to go through all the protocols.”

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