MIAMI -- Once Skip Schumaker took over as Marlins' manager in October, his first conversation with Sandy Alcantara revolved around the ace’s affinity for finishing games. It was an amusing and often-contested exchange with then-skipper Don Mattingly in 2022.
Schumaker’s message then was simple: We’ll be smart about it.
With Alcantara through eight innings on 93 pitches against the Twins on Tuesday night at loanDepot park, it became more and more likely Schumaker would have a tough decision to make.
“I was starting to look at the pitches, and I was like, ‘All right, here we go. He's going to do it to me,’” said Schumaker, who was the Cardinals’ bench coach when Alcantara tossed a complete game vs. St. Louis on June 29, 2022. “The second start of the season, you don't want to just crush the guy. And the flip side, I know what that means to pitchers to go in the ninth and finish the thing out and go pole to pole.”
The 27-year-old Alcantara did so on 100 pitches, picking up where he left off during his 2022 National League Cy Young Award-winning campaign, when he recorded a MLB-high six complete games -- more than every other club.
Counting only non-weather-shortened games and a regular season that didn't start in July, the last pitchers with a complete game in the team's first six games of the season were José Berríos (nine innings in 2018 with Minnesota) and Corey Kluber (eight frames in ‘18 with Cleveland).
“The guy is a dog,” said Twins catcher Christian Vázquez, who went 0-for-3 with a strikeout. “He’s a dog. Tough. Tough pitcher. A lot of respect for him."
Alcantara, who permitted just four baserunners, retired the first 11 batters he faced before Trevor Larnach’s infield hit in the fourth. He then worked around a leadoff walk in the seventh, stranding the runner at second.
In the ninth, Alcantara gave up a one-out single to Carlos Correa before recording the game-ending 6-3 double play on a sinker to Larnach. Schumaker had southpaw A.J. Puk ready in the bullpen for the left-handed-hitting Lanarch, but he decided Alcantara was the club’s best chance to win the game.
“I thought he was pretty good,” said Jacob Stallings, who caught every pitch thrown by Alcantara in 2022. “He really had his sinker going tonight. Honestly, I didn't think he had his best changeup, just wasn't in the zone with the change probably as much as we're used to, but [the] slider was good, [and the] two-seam was really good.
“We kind of abandoned the entire pregame meeting pretty early just because his two-seam was so good. We planned to attack more up in the zone today. We did a few times, but [he threw] a lot of sinkers, so it's just kind of what makes him special.”
Tuesday marked the best possible outcome for Alcantara coming off an atypical start on Opening Day, when he issued four walks and permitted three runs in 5 2/3 frames in a 5-3 loss to the Mets. That type of outing motivated him even more than usual to throw first-pitch strikes and attack hitters.
After tossing an MLB-low 14.20 pitches per inning in 2022, Alcantara was just as economical. In three of his nine innings, he needed fewer than 10 pitches. He never threw more than 18 in a frame.
García hit the go-ahead shot in the ninth last June in St. Louis to pave the way for Alcantara’s complete game. García predicted the right-hander was going to throw nine innings in his return to the mound.
"It feels great,” said García, who reached 10 years of Major League service time on Monday. “Anytime you help the team win, I think you feel good about it. Sandy pitched an unbelievable game, as always. I'm happy that I hit a homer for Sandy to win the game.”
With the Marlins riding a three-game skid, they needed Alcantara to serve as a stopper, just like he did in 2022. Last season, he recorded a 2.31 ERA, and the club went 15-6 in 21 starts Alcantara made following a defeat.
“When I came to the locker room today [after the game], I asked everybody how they feel, and everybody said, ‘Good,’ and I said, ‘Right, because we won today, so that's what I want to see every time,’” Alcantara said. “And [I] just said, ‘Avi, thank you for that bump today.’ Hopefully he can continue to hit a lot of homers -- not just him, everybody. When we wake up, we're going to win a lot of games.”