Sandy Alcantara wants the ball, and manager Don Mattingly accommodated by naming the 25-year-old right-hander as the Marlins’ Game 1 starter on Tuesday afternoon against the Braves in the best-of-five National League Division Series.
The decision was expected, since Alcantara is on full rest and has earned the team’s title as ace.
The series is being played at Minute Maid Park in Houston.
López last pitched on Sept. 24 at Atlanta, so he will be going 12 days between starts. Sánchez, meanwhile, pitched Game 2 against the Cubs at Wrigley Field on Friday, when Miami closed out Chicago in the NL Wild Card Series.
“Obviously, Sandy's easy,” Mattingly said during Monday’s Zoom media session. “He's been our guy, kind of our No. 1. Pablo, it's been so long since he pitched. … So giving Sixto the extra day is a lot better than giving Pablo more time. Trying to get Pablo back out there quicker.”
Considered the underdog among the remaining eight teams in the postseason, the Marlins have accelerated their building process to become a contending club, largely because of their young starters.
Alcantara, López and Sánchez all have top-of-the-rotation capabilities.
In 2020, Alcantara has most performed like an ace. But in the near future, he promises to be challenged, putting the Marlins in an envious spot of having multiple aces in the making.
A year ago, the Nationals won the World Series with a rotation headlined by two true aces, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.
“I think the better teams have better pitching in general,” Mattingly said. “I think when you get into a playoff setting, you usually don't see [your] four or five. In this series, we have a chance for probably four for sure. But you don't usually see those guys in a short series.”
The Division Series is set up to potentially play five straight days. Miami didn’t announce a Game 4 starter, but it likely would be rookie left-hander Trevor Rogers. If there is a winner-take-all fifth game, Alcantara could be an option to pitch in some capacity, but it would be on short rest.
With an abundance of pitching depth, the Marlins have created a friendly competition among their starters.
“We try to be together and support each other and take advantage of each opportunity,” Alcantara said. “I think we've been doing a great job doing that.”
The Marlins acquired Alcantara from the Cardinals at the 2017 Winter Meetings as part of a deal for Marcell Ozuna, who is now with the Braves.
An increasingly confident Alcantara said he will treat Ozuna like anyone else. They are both natives of the Dominican Republic.
“We are friends,” Alcantara said. “But I don't care. When you go in the batter's box, I'm going to go get you.”
Marlins shortstop Miguel Rojas said he saw Alcantara make a great leap in his development after he appeared in the 2019 All-Star Game.
“He knew his stuff was good,” Rojas said. “He needed to keep focused on that and keep attacking the strike zone. It doesn't matter if they put the ball in play. He will find a way to get out of innings. He's got electric stuff. He can strike out people. He can get a bunch of soft-contact ground balls.”
Since July 14, 2019, Alcantara’s first game back after the Midsummer Classic, he has a 3.65 ERA in 22 regular-season starts, with an opponents' batting average of .223 and 120 strikeouts in 138 innings. This season, which included a bout with COVID-19, he went 3-2 with a 3.00 ERA.
Against the Cubs in Game 1 of the NLDS, Alcantara allowed one run over 6 2/3 innings.
“He wants the ball,” Rojas said. “He wants to be the guy. He's confident, and he's pretty good. That's a pretty good combination.”
Alcantara has power stuff. According to Statcast, he averages 96.2 mph on his sinker and 96.9 mph on his four-seam fastball. Opponents are hitting .193 off his sinker and .231 off his four-seamer. His slider has progressed, as batters have an expected batting average of .224 against the pitch.
His sinker has been his best pitch, but now he has a more complete mix.
“I'd say in the past that one pitch [sinker] is pretty much what he was,” Mattingly said. “That wasn't going to be good enough. In the last couple of years, he makes sure he uses his four-seam, developing the slider, continue to know where he wants to throw his changeup.
“So it's a part of a combination, but obviously it's power stuff. It's like Sixto and Pablo, too. Anything that has sink and high velocity, you've got deal with a lot of it.”