To NLDS: Hungry Sixto leads Miami's shutout

October 3rd, 2020

The Marlins’ decision to start rookie in Game 2 of the best-of-three National League Wild Card Series on Friday was met with a little skepticism, based on two straight shaky outings by the 22-year-old heading into the postseason. But ultimately, when it was time to make a call, the organization noted that Sánchez’s raw talent was too elite to pass up in a short series.

Sánchez certainly backed that up, bringing the heat and showing composure in five shutout innings at Wrigley Field. , meanwhile, broke a scoreless tie with a seventh-inning homer, helping the Marlins blank the Cubs, 2-0, to advance to the NL Division Series.

One of the biggest underdog stories in years, the sixth-seeded Marlins now face the second-seeded Braves in NLDS Game 1 on Tuesday at Minute Maid Park in Houston.

“You've got to start with Sixto, right?” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “He sets the tone. He throws a game that, not to say you expect, because he's a rookie and you don't know what's going to happen. He struggled recently, but we felt good about him. He gives us a solid five, and gets us into the back end.”

Sánchez, who made seven regular-season starts, kept the Marlins even against Cubs ace and NL Cy Young Award contender Yu Darvish. The Marlins broke through against Darvish on Cooper’s homer, which projected at 370 feet and had an exit velocity of 104.4 mph. , starting in place of , added an RBI single later in the seventh.

“I went out there with a lot of hunger, looking to win the game,” Sánchez said through an interpreter. “I was very focused. I was doing a good job until that fourth inning. I got a little scrambled with pitches, but I got back into my rhythm and got those outs."

The Marlins have been to the postseason three times in franchise history, and they still have never lost a series (7-0). They won the World Series in 1997 and 2003.

"I think that's a group that believes in one another," Cubs manager David Ross said. "You can tell they play together. They faced two really good pitchers and put up a lot of zeros throughout the game, and then they found a way late to get a hit here or there."

This year’s squad is the surprise of baseball. The Marlins lost 105 games just last season, and they had 18 players test positive for COVID-19 earlier this summer. The emergence of Sánchez is a big reason for Miami's success.

For all the Marlins have gone through, they’ve found a way to overcome every obstacle. Even having to play Game 2 on Friday after MLB, showing caution due to the threat of inclement weather on Thursday, postponed that game.

The ability to clear every hurdle in their path -- and still find a way -- is one reason why closer expressed his emotions after striking out Jason Kipnis to end the game with a runner at second.

“There's a lot of emotions,” said Kintzler, who was with the Cubs last year. “That out. That inning. That game. This year. Obviously, we're not done, but there are so many emotions.”

The Marlins have embraced a “bottom feeders” mantra. The rally cry started the first weekend of the season, when Miami faced the Phillies. Former pitcher Ricky Bottalico, who is a Philadelphia TV sports analyst, referred to the Marlins as “bottom feeders.”

“Just to get the last out right there was like, 'We're still here. You can't get rid of us,'" Kintzler said. “I don't care if we're bottom feeders.”

Sánchez, too, quieted some critics after he allowed nine runs in seven innings in his last two regular-season starts. The rookie had posted a 1.69 ERA in his first five starts.

Sánchez was on the attack in his five innings. Of his 89 pitches, 65 were four-seam fastballs. He averaged 98.3 mph on his heater and maxed at 100.8 mph.

The rookie had seven pitches recorded at 100 mph or higher, which tied him with Nathan Eovaldi for fourth most in a postseason start since pitch tracking started in 2008. They only rank behind the late Yordano Ventura, Noah Syndergaard and Justin Verlander. Sánchez also threw nine more pitches between 99.5 and 100 mph.

Sánchez dedicated the start to his grandmother, Pura Maria, who passed away earlier in the summer due to COVID-19. Before throwing a pitch, Sánchez used his finger to write her name on the back of the mound. He then scooped up some dirt in his right hand and placed it over his heart.

“Every time I go out there, I look for the victory, and every victory is for my family,” Sánchez said. “Especially on this day, it was for my grandmother. I loved her very much.”

The rookie sensation sailed along smoothly through three innings, logging five strikeouts and dominating with his four-seam fastball. The Cubs were able to get Sánchez in trouble in the fourth. Willson Contreras grinded out a nine-pitch walk and Kyle Schwarber drew a seven-pitch walk. With no outs, Kris Bryant lined out to second.

Heyward then struck a broken-bat single to right. Contreras, who had a slow read at second, still attempted to score, but threw a one-hop strike to catcher , who applied the tag on Contreras for the second out. Statcast projected the throw at 83.1 mph. Sánchez stranded runners on the corners by getting Javier Báez on a fly ball to right, ending a 27-pitch inning.

“It wasn't hit too hard,” Joyce said. “Contreras had to freeze, because it was a lower line drive, and he didn't know if he would catch it. Obviously, that gave me enough time. When I came up with the ball, I saw Contreras was just touching the bag and the coach was waving him. I was like, 'All right, all I have to do is deliver a strike.' Fortunately, I did.”

Sánchez was tested again in the fifth, loading the bases before retiring Schwarber on a fly ball to left field to end the frame. The Cubs ran up his pitch count to 21 in the inning, and they succeeded in getting the rookie out of the game after five.

“Sixto, man,” Joyce said. “He was amazing. To throw the ball the way he did like that, he kept us in the game, and kept the guys really motivated every inning.”