ATLANTA -- The end result didn’t go the Marlins’ way, but Sunday afternoon’s 4-3 nail-biter loss to the Braves at SunTrust Park pretty much was a microcosm of the youthful club’s first half.
After falling behind by four runs against Dallas Keuchel, the Marlins made a comeback. It began when they put two runners on in the eighth, leading to the 2015 American League Cy Young Award winner's exit. Garrett Cooper hit a three-run homer off reliever Chad Sobotka to make it a one-run game, and the Marlins set up high drama in the ninth by loading the bases with no outs off Braves closer Luke Jackson, only to experience an exasperating loss.
“Pretty indicative, I think, of our first half,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “The guys have shown they're not going to quit playing. Even the last day before the [All-Star] break, when people are trying to get out, guys kept playing. I'm really proud of the effort today.”
The frustrating part was how it ended.
• Box score
With the bases loaded, Neil Walker lined out to left off Jackson, and Charlie Culberson made a strong throw to the plate to get Jorge Alfaro, who was trying to score after tagging up at third, for a double play.
Miami challenged the call, which was confirmed, contending that catcher Brian McCann blocked the plate.
Overall, Marlins right-hander Trevor Richards kept Miami in position to take the series finale after its 5-4 victory on Saturday. He allowed four runs in five innings, including a two-run homer to Josh Donaldson, the 200th of his career. But the Braves (54-37) improved to 10-2 against the Marlins on the season.
With the Marlins falling to 33-55 at the All-Star break, here are three main takeaways for their loss on Sunday:
1) Controversy at home
Culberson made a terrific play, and delivered an accurate throw to get Alfaro at the plate in the ninth. But Mattingly questioned the replay decision, contending that McCann didn’t leave a lane to the plate. McCann’s left foot was stationed on home plate, and then he moved forward to collect the throw and apply the tag.
“We looked at the replay, and McCann is standing on home plate, and then he goes directly to taking home plate completely away, with nowhere to slide. I don't know if that rule has been redacted, and I don't know about it,” Mattingly said. “But that was exactly what this rule is in play for. … In that scenario, really, [Alfaro] should have cleaned his clock. That's what the game doesn't want, but then we're not going to call that.”
McCann replied: “Charlie has an unbelievable arm. It was just a matter of whether it was going to be accurate or not. It was right on the money. A one-hop [throw] that, literally, I didn’t have to move my glove. That’s what he does. This guy is Charlie Clutch.”
Alfaro, a catcher himself, said he felt his only place to go was to slide directly into McCann.
“I didn't have any room to slide,” Alfaro said. “I just tried to slide to home plate. All I saw was him in between home plate and me. I just wanted to slide straight into home plate and see what they call.”
2) Starters step up
The Miami rotation has been the strength of the squad, and the Marlins starters head into the break with a 3.92 ERA, seventh best in the Majors. Miami’s starters have logged 39 quality starts (at least six innings pitched with three or fewer runs allowed), which is tied with the D-backs for 10th most in the Majors.
For the most part, Richards (3-10, 4.18 ERA) has pitched better than his results this season. Opening the season as the No. 2 starter, the 26-year-old has drawn more than his share of tough opponents. Keuchel is the latest.
On Sunday, Richards rolled out more cut fastballs, throwing 17 of them. His most effective one was to Dansby Swanson, inducing a 6-4-3 double play after the Braves loaded the bases in the fourth.
“I threw a lot of good cutters today,” Richards said. “I made a little adjustment. They were better throughout the day. Got weak contact. A lot of those balls that found holes were cutters. That double play was huge to get out of that.”
What Richards lacked was run support.
3) Grounding it out
Sunday’s matchup was not ideal for a punchless Marlins’ offense. Keuchel is a ground-ball-inducing pitcher, and Miami is known for hitting the ball on the ground. The Marlins’ 50 percent ground-ball percentage is the highest in the Majors.
Keuchel did his thing, getting 13 ground-ball outs and only two fly-ball outs in 7 1/3 innings. He was charged with two of the runs that scored on Cooper's homer. The Marlins had a runner in scoring position in the second, third and fourth innings, but were unable to cash in. Starlin Castro had two hits off Keuchel and reached third base in the second inning on Yadiel Rivera’s double. The two were left stranded.
Mattingly felt Keuchel benefited from a generous strike zone by home plate umpire Marty Foster. The veteran lefty had 15 called strikes on the day.
“Marty, gave him the [pitch] off the plate all day,” Mattingly said. “When they're calling that pitch on a guy who is trying to sink it, and you're trying to get him up in the zone, he forces you to have to chase that ball in there.”
After Castro’s single to lead off the fourth, Keuchel retired 13 straight -- eight on ground outs -- before pinch-hitter Brian Anderson walked with one out in the eighth.
The Marlins had two infield singles in the ninth inning, putting them in position to tie or take the lead. They fell short, but Alfaro notes the team is pulling even closer together.
“We're growing as a family, not a team,” Alfaro said. “We're a family here, and we are growing together.”
Joe Frisaro has covered the Marlins for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @JoeFrisaro and listen to his podcast.