Even without best stuff, Cabrera still quality

May 23rd, 2023

DENVER -- Things just weren’t right for from the start.

“At the beginning of the game, I was feeling a little suffocated,” Cabrera said via team interpreter Luis Dorante Jr. after the Marlins lost, 5-3, to the Rockies on Monday night at Coors Field.

“Maybe it was the altitude. But you’ve got to continue with the plan, attack the zone and try to throw as many strikes as you can.”

That, in so many words, encapsulated the 25-year-old right-hander’s night -- he struggled from the outset and had to fight his command and his stuff all evening, but he recovered from a rocky first inning to give up just one run over the next five.

It’s all about maturation for Cabrera, who has some of the best pure stuff in baseball: He features a fastball that can reach triple digits on the radar gun, a curveball that can be devastating at times and a changeup that sits in the upper-90s, not to mention a sinker and a slider. Early this year, his third Major League season, the biggest issue was command -- through his first six starts, he walked 25 in 27 innings.

But he only issued one free pass Monday night in the most hitter-friendly environment in the Majors, and that walk is the only one he has been charged with over his last two starts (11 innings).

“We’ll take the hits [he gives up]. It’s the self-inflicted wounds that generally cost him,” manager Skip Schumaker said. “No walks last start, one walk this start -- there are a lot of positives that are happening with him. …That’s all you could ask for today -- six innings, three runs in this ballpark, you can’t really ask for anything more than that.”

The Rockies ambushed Cabrera in the first inning. Jurickson Profar, Kris Bryant and Elias Díaz each doubled in succession to give Colorado a prompt 2-0 lead. Cabrera, though, took a breath and collected himself -- as well as the outs over the next four innings -- retiring 12 of the next 14 batters he faced.

When he needed it, his curveball was there -- three of Cabrera’s six strikeouts came with the hook, and he was able to mix and match his way to a quality start despite not having a true feel for any of the pitches in his arsenal.

“He could’ve given up another run in the first, and he could’ve been in an even bigger deficit,” said catcher Jacob Stallings, who collected two RBIs. “But he did a great job keeping us in the game [even though] he didn’t have his best stuff. … After that first inning, I didn’t really think he had his best breaking ball, so we went more fastball/changeup and tried to find spots for the breaking balls.

“His changeup really started working as the outing went on, and he was getting a lot of outs with it. He was getting fastballs to the top and was able to put some guys away with breaking balls below the zone.”

Stallings pointed out that there were “some bigger misses than maybe he’s accustomed to with the breaking ball,” and that perhaps the altitude had something to do with that.

The altitude is something Cabrera isn’t accustomed to either, but this wasn’t his first time encountering Coors Field. He made his season debut last year at Coors after missing the first two months due to injury, becoming just the eighth visiting pitcher in the ballpark’s history to give up no more than one hit while holding the Rockies scoreless in an outing of at least six innings.

The Marlins won that contest last June, 14-1. The runs weren’t so plentiful for Miami on Monday, when the lineup went 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position despite a career-high-tying four hits for Bryan De La Cruz and two more hits for Luis Arraez, who upped his batting average to .383.

While he could’ve used more run support, Cabrera knows that when it comes to growth as a Major League pitcher, Monday’s experience was one to put in the memory bank on the positive side of the ledger. 

After all, he’s now made two starts in the Mile High City and has given up three runs on six hits in 12 innings (2.25 ERA). Any pitcher would take that line.

“I remember last year,” Cabrera said. “I also felt a little suffocated because of the altitude. But you’ve just got to keep competing and trying to get outs. I think that was a good outing last year, and now this year.”