ST. LOUIS -- There sat Marlins ace Sandy Alcantara at the end of the dugout bench, a towel wrapped around his neck, his intense stare willing a rally out of his teammates. All Alcantara ever wants is a chance to pitch nine innings. On Wednesday night, it didn’t look like he would get a chance to with his club trailing by a run.
Miami was down to its final out with a runner at first base, drawing the Busch Stadium crowd to its feet in anticipation of a series sweep. Then Avisaíl García turned on a first-pitch, 98.8 mph fastball for the go-ahead two-run homer off Ryan Helsley to send Alcantara to the mound.
“We've got our ace on the mound,” said García, who had taken Helsley deep in 2021 as a member of the Brewers. “If we score runs for Sandy, I think we've got a good chance to win. He's nasty. He's one of the best.”
Had the score remained tied, manager Don Mattingly wouldn’t have sent Alcantara out there. But Alcantara received a chance at payback after taking a walk-off loss June 16, 2021, when he surrendered an unearned run in the ninth against the Cardinals.
On Wednesday, Alcantara permitted a walk and a single with one out before Mattingly visited the mound. A similar scene played out earlier this season, with Mattingly pulling Alcantara during the eighth inning June 13 in Philadelphia. Steven Okert proceeded to surrender the tying run, much to the frustration of Alcantara.
“I wasn't taking him out on that one but I did want to see where he's at,” Mattingly said. “Kind of asked him where he's at, and he said he had it. I wasn't going to promise him two hitters but I was going to give him that one.
“When he came to me, I just said, ‘I got it, I got it, I got it,’ and he left,” Alcantara said, “because I think he's got too much confidence in me, and he knows I can finish the game.”
Alcantara felt he could get a double play with his sinker, and that’s exactly what happened off the bat of Edmundo Sosa to secure Miami’s 4-3 comeback victory over St. Louis. It marked Alcantara’s MLB-high second complete game of 2022 and fifth of his career. He did it on a career-high 117 pitches.
The 26-year-old Alcantara, who continues to bolster his case to start the All-Star Game for the National League, has thrown 115 1/3 innings through 16 starts -- the most since Johnny Cueto and Clayton Kershaw in 2016. He has gone at least seven frames in 10 straight starts -- the most since Rick Porcello in late ‘16. He has the second-lowest ERA (1.95) in the NL throwing nearly 20 more frames than everyone else.
Once the No. 6 prospect for the Cardinals, Alcantara has blossomed into one of -- if not the best the game has to offer in terms of starting pitchers. Though confident in his abilities, Alcantara was modest when asked whether there’s a better pitcher than him in the Majors right now.
“I don't know,” Alcantara said with a laugh. “There's a lot of good pitchers right now. I don't have to say I'm the best but I've got to keep doing my job. Keep positive and keep competing.”
It’s a tough pill for St. Louis to swallow. The organization sent Alcantara to Miami as the centerpiece of the Marcell Ozuna trade in December 2017. Three months earlier, he had debuted as a September callup, making eight relief appearances with the Cardinals. He was far from a finished product -- with much velocity and little command.
Fast forward and all 94 starts of Alcantara’s MLB career have come with the Marlins. Two have come at Busch Stadium. Both have been complete games, the first being the aforementioned 8 1/3-inning walk-off loss.
“He's refined now,” said Andrew Knizner, who caught Alcantara in the Minors. “He's got a lot of big league experience under his belt. One thing with Sandy that was always impressive, he always had the raw talent, he always had the real good fastball and nasty slider but he was a hard worker. His work ethic and his knowledge of the game -- and it's not a surprise to anybody that he is who he is today. He just had to keep throwing innings, keep throwing pitches and keep working on this stuff. And if he's not the best pitcher in the game, he's up there.”
That’s exactly what Miami's front office, including assistant general manager Brian Chattin, quickly learned. Chattin had seen Alcantara in Rookie ball, where he was clearly better than most of the hitters he faced.
“We felt that there was so much projection to him, that we felt that the delivery was repeatable enough, there was enough athleticism there,” Chattin said. “Certainly wasn't a finished product at the time that we were pursuing him, but we felt like there was potential there to be a top-rotation-type pitcher, and he's fortunately gotten there and even exceeded those expectations.”