MIAMI -- Friday night’s 2-1 defeat to the Pirates at loanDepot park served as a reminder of what could’ve been for the Marlins in the 2021 season. The last time the Marlins faced the Bucs was in the midst of a season-turning 1-8 road trip that traveled through Boston twice, Buffalo, N.Y., and Pittsburgh from May 28-June 7.
Though pundits predicted Miami to finish at or near the bottom of the National League East, where the club currently resides with 15 games remaining, the organization felt it had a shot at competing thanks to its pitching staff, in particular its starters.
But the Marlins lost two of their projected five -- Sixto Sánchez and Elieser Hernandez -- within the first week of the season. After two months of bullpen games, a carousel of Minor League arms and off-day manipulation to make do, Hernandez returned from the 60-day injured list to open that June series at PNC Park. He cruised through five innings, allowing one run and striking out six. Miami thought things were beginning to fall into place. Then he strained his right quad while crossing home plate in the sixth, landing on the 60-day IL for a second time.
“I think you always in the back of your head think, ‘If we can play relatively healthy, then at least what you thought were your deficiencies or thought were your positives coming out of the offseason, you'd be able to evaluate yourself,’” GM Kim Ng said earlier in the week. “So I think the toughest thing was when we did get as injured as we did, there's still this question mark of like, ‘What were we really?’ … But I think that's when you look back at the season, the one thing you wish you could have seen is what it really would've looked like.”
In the first meeting between the clubs since early June, Hernandez was on the mound again for his sixth start back from the IL. He walked a career-high five batters and permitted a pair of unearned runs across a season-high 5 2/3 frames.
“None of that came to mind,” said Hernandez via an interpreter. “I think I'm one of those types of people that when I fall, I simply get up and continue walking forward.”
Hernandez’s 2021 embodies that of the Marlins in regards to the way their season turned out. He had a breakout ‘20 campaign before a right lat strain sidelined him as the club reached the playoffs for the first time since ‘03. Internal expectations came with that success.
A year later, Miami became a seller at the Trade Deadline, giving way for inexperienced players getting extended looks and also going through growing pains. Rookie Bryan De La Cruz (acquired in exchange for Yimi García) has been a mainstay in the lineup since his debut. Meanwhile, Alex Jackson (for Adam Duvall) has seen the majority of the playing time at catcher and Jesús Luzardo (for Starling Marte) is finding his groove in the rotation.
The final player to be acquired around that time, Payton Henry, made his Major League debut in Friday’s series opener. Dealt by the Brewers for John Curtiss, he caught Hernandez twice during his rehab assignment with Triple-A Jacksonville. Early on, manager Don Mattingly felt they weren’t on the same page, but that quickly got fixed.
Henry doubled to straightaway center, but also recorded a passed ball that set up the decisive run on Cole Tucker’s sacrifice fly in the sixth inning. In the ninth with a chance to rally and walk it off, the young Marlins couldn’t come up with the clutch hit. Following a leadoff triple by De La Cruz, rookie Jesús Sánchez and Lewis Brinson struck out. After fellow rookie Lewin Díaz was intentionally walked, Henry struck out swinging to end the game.
“You hate to say everything's inexperience, because that can happen to anybody,” said Mattingly of Sánchez’s at-bat. “But I think he'll learn from whatever -- in his own thoughts -- what his plan was for that at-bat, and if he had to do it over again, would he change it or just lower his sights a little bit? You can't really speak for him there in that spot, but I think it'll be good for him from the standpoint moving forward.”