COVID Hit the World Series in Game 6. What if the Rays Had Forced a Game 7?

 Justin Turner #10 and the Los Angeles Dodgers pose for a photo after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays 3-1 in Game 6 to win the 2020 MLB World Series.
On Earth One, where this happened. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The timeline of Los Angeles Dodgers’ third baseman Justin Turner’s positive COVID test on Tuesday is worthy of its own box score:

Monday: Dodgers players take their daily coronavirus tests, which are then sent via express mail from Arlington, Texas, to a lab in Utah for analysis.

Tuesday night: The Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays start Game 6 of the World Series at Globe Life Field in Arlington. During MLB’s “playoff bubble,” the results from the previous day’s tests were usually returned before the start of the next day’s games. However, according to ESPN’s Jeff Passan, the results “were delivered late.”

Second inning of Game 6: With the Rays leading, 1-0, the Dodgers’ test results come back. Every one of them is negative except for Turner’s, which is deemed inconclusive. According to Passan’s source, it “showed some characteristics associated with a positive test … but the efforts to amplify the results by doctors running the tests did not say for certain.” At around the same time, tests taken by the players on Tuesday morning arrived at the Utah lab. Turner’s test is expedited.

Sixth inning: Rays manager Kevin Cash pulls starter Blake Snell, who has been essentially unhittable. His replacement immediately gives up two runs, allowing the Dodgers to take the lead. This has nothing to do with the coronavirus, but it’s still pretty wild.

Seventh inning: The Dodgers are told that Turner’s Tuesday test has come back positive. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts pulls him from the game when the inning is over, though the reason is not immediately made public. Turner is placed in isolation in a doctor’s office inside the stadium.

Eighth inning: Mookie Betts hits a home run and extends the Dodgers’ lead to 3-1.

Ninth Inning: The Dodgers’ Julio Urias strikes out Will Adames, and L.A. wins the World Series. Turner leaves isolation to celebrate with his teammates on the field. He removes his mask for pictures, kisses, and hugs.

On Wednesday, MLB sternly condemned Turner’s actions. “[I]t is clear that Turner chose to disregard the agreed-upon joint protocols and the instructions he was given regarding the safety and protection of others,” read a league statement. “While a desire to celebrate is understandable, Turner’s decision to leave isolation and enter the field was wrong and put everyone he came in contact with at risk. When MLB Security raised the matter of being on the field with Turner, he emphatically refused to comply.”

It may be difficult to believe, but the sight of a maskless Justin Turner celebrating with his Dodgers teammates after their World Series triumph may not have been the worst-case scenario for the league. Had the Rays won Tuesday and forced a Game 7, things could have gotten really messy.

Under the league’s regular-season protocols, when a player tested positive for COVID-19, all teammates and staff who had been in close contact with him were given tests immediately and had to remain in isolation until they tested negative. The Dodgers were tested Tuesday night after the game, and the results may or may not have been processed before Game 7’s scheduled start time on Wednesday. The uncertainty likely would have forced the league to delay the decisive game at least one day—and that’s only if every test came back negative, and if the virus hadn’t spread to the Rays, too.

If the tests yielded multiple positive results, then the league would’ve had two choices: play on without the affected players or delay Game 7, potentially for an extended period of time. In July, both the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins experienced outbreaks within their squads. The Marlins were forced to bring in 17 new players to fill out their ranks, something that could not realistically be done on the cusp of the season’s deciding game. The Cardinals had to postpone more than two weeks of games—16 of them, to be precise—before they were able to put together enough negative test results to play again. In a worst-case scenario where the Dodgers experienced St. Louis–like levels of infection, Game 7 of the World Series would have been played around mid-November, if there was still a world by then.

How would this waiting period have transpired? Would fans have been on daily standby, hoping that this, finally, would be the night their beloved heroes returned? Would we all have forgotten who was in the World Series, or what “base ball” even was? Granted, the players themselves would’ve had to endure an extended time off, too, and they would’ve had to do so while in strict quarantine. On the plus side for the Rays, they could’ve brought back Blake Snell to start Game 7 … and then pulled him once more after six innings of work.

We reached out to Major League Baseball in search of an official pronouncement on how a possible Game 7 would’ve been handled and have not received a response. (We’ll update this post if we do get one.) It’s not entirely clear how the league’s COVID protocols differed during the playoffs as opposed to the regular season. We do know that the players were tested every day during the playoffs rather than every other day—a change that would allow MLB to catch any positive cases before games, if the tests were shipped and processed on time. That, uh, didn’t happen on Tuesday, and so the league got hit by the only positive test recorded all playoffs in the middle of the season’s final game.

Listen to an episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen below, or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.