The Miami Marlins’ latest road trip has come to an end, with the team going a combined 2-4 against the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies — winning the finale after dropping the first two games in each city.
Here are some thoughts on the team as they return home.
▪ Even with a lackluster offense, a healthy rotation can keep this team in games: The Marlins’ starting pitchers have a combined 3.73 ERA, which is the eighth-best mark in baseball. Six of the seven teams ahead of them — the Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros, Tampa Bay Rays, New York Yankees, New York Mets and Phillies — are currently in playoff position.
Marlins starters held opponents to 11 earned runs over 35 innings — a 2.83 ERA — on this road trip.
And, a reminder: All of the Marlins’ primary starting pitchers are 26 years old or younger and are all under team control for a minimum of two years each.
“We’re all young,” 24-year-old lefty Jesus Luzardo said, “but we all go out there and compete and do what it takes to be great. ... We push each other, little by little.”
Sandy Alcantara, of course, has been the headliner of the group and for good reason.
The 26-year-old stands to be the frontrunner for the National League Cy Young Award, which has never been won by a Marlins pitcher. He leads all of baseball with 166 innings pitched and three complete games, including one shutout. Even after giving up four runs in his Wednesday loss to the Phillies, including three runs on six hits in the decisive eighth inning, he still has a 2.01 ERA is third in the majors only to the Astros’ Justin Verlander (1.85) and the White Sox’s Dylan Cease (1.96).
Pablo Lopez, Alcantara’s partner at the top of the rotation, is in the midst of a breakout season. He has already set career highs in starts (22), innings pitched (123 2/3) and strikeouts (125) and is putting up solid all-around numbers in key categories (3.57 ERA, .232 batting average against, 1.16 walks and hits per inning pitched). Several playoff teams including the Dodgers, Cardinals and Yankees were interesting in acquiring Lopez at the trade deadline last week but none provided the Marlins with an adequate enough offer for Miami to be willing to move him.
But the success extends beyond those two when at full strength.
Start with Luzardo, who the Marlins acquired last trade deadline from the Oakland Athletics. He pitched to a 3.08 ERA during his first five starts of the season before he started to deal with a left forearm strain in his start against the Arizona Diamondbacks that sidelined him for more than two-and-a-half months. In two starts since his return, he has given up just two runs over 12 innings while striking out 12 and giving up just four hits and one walk.
It continues with Edward Cabrera, who like Luzardo has missed about two months this season due to injury (right elbow tendonitis). He has a 2.05 ERA in his five starts, including throwing five no-hit innings against the Cubs in his return from injury on Friday and 5 2/3 shutout innings on Thursday against the Phillies, with 29 strikeouts over 26 1/3 innings.
Lefty Braxton Garrett has shown flashes of a breakout this season. After a shaky first five starts, Garrett has pitched to a 3.35 ERA in seven starts since the beginning of July. Opponents are hitting just .197 in that span against Garrett, who has also struck out 47 batters while walking just eight over 40 1/3 innings.
This isn’t even mentioning Trevor Rogers, the runner-up for the National League Rookie of the Year last season who has gone through his lumps this season (5.85 ERA over 87 2/3 innings in 19 games) and is working his way back from an injured list stint for back spasms. Should Rogers return to form, it would give the Marlins yet another quality option.
“We have a lot of good arms,” catcher Jacob Stallings said. “We just need to keep them healthy and keep them on the field because when we do that, we’re running five, six dudes out there that can really, really get outs and eat innings.”
▪ But pitching can only go so far: While Miami is able to stay in games because of its arms, it hasn’t been able to get over the hump because its offense has been average on good days and nearly lethargic of bad days.
The Marlins have scored just 16 runs in their first nine games in August and have been held to three runs or fewer in 64 of their 111 games overall this season. This includes 12 shutout losses, the most in the National League and the third-most overall in baseball behind only the Detroit Tigers (15) and Kansas City Royals (13).
“It feels like we’re always in this battle of getting in the game,” shortstop Miguel Rojas said. “When [the opponent] scores one run, it feels like we have to score ten. ... This offense can be so much better. We just need to be in the same kind of group and in sync and we’re not there. We’ve been battling.”
▪ The kids are playing: As the Marlins continue to slip down in the standings, one of the organization’s primary focuses down the stretch of the season is to get some of their top position player prospects steady at-bats at the MLB level.
JJ Bleday. Peyton Burdick. Lewin Diaz. Even Charles Leblanc.
Giving them two-plus months of consistent action will give the front office a large enough sample size to look at over the offseason as they try to figure out which players could have long-term roles with the club.
But Marlins manager Don Mattingly also made clear there’s a balancing act to be had. While they want the prospects to impress, they also don’t want the young players to feel like all the pressure is on them to lead the team to wins while they’re getting their feet wet in the big leagues.
“You shouldn’t have to ask Peyton Burdick or JJ or any of these guys that come up to carry you,” Mattingly said. “Your older guys have to carry the club at some time. Having that mixture where you have [Joey] Wendle, and [Jon] Berti and Miggy and guys that play the game right and get after it.”
As for how those players have fared so far? Through Thursday:
-Bleday is hitting .242 with two home run, four doubles, one triple, three RBI, six walks and seven runs scored over 18 games. He has primarily played center field defensively.
-Burdick made his MLB debut on Friday and has gone 4 for 20 at the plate (.200 average) with one home run, one double, and two walks through his six three games. He played in left field on Friday and Saturday and right field on Sunday. He started in center field all three games against the Phillies.
The Marlins want to give Burdick an opportunity to play all three outfield spots, although left field is where he will most likely get the most playing time with Bleday in center field and Avisail Garcia slotting into right field when he comes off the injured list.
-Diaz is hitting .167 (7 for 42) with one double, five walks and five runs scored in 13 games since his most recent call up on July 26 while playing solid defense at first base.
-Leblanc has been the most productive hitter of the bunch, safely reaching base in each of his first 11 games and posting a .410 batting average (16 for 39) with four doubles, one home run, two RBI, four runs scored and two stolen bases.
▪ This final two-plus month stretch? It’s filled with stiff competition. Including these past three games against the Phillies, 36 of Miami’s final 54 games are against teams who were in the playoff field entering Thursday: 10 against the Braves, nine against the Phillies, seven against the Los Angeles Dodgers, five against the New York Mets, three against the Padres and two against the Tampa Bay Rays.
That doesn’t include a four-game set against the Milwaukee Brewers, who are one game behind the Padres for the National League’s third wild card spot.
“This is going to be a stretch that we’re going to have to be playing [well],” Mattingly said, “or it could get bad.”