Reaching the playoffs remains the focus for the Marlins. So is protecting the health and longevity of their players, especially a prized rookie talent like Sixto Sánchez.
After laboring for 75 pitches through three innings on Wednesday night, Sánchez was replaced by Josh A. Smith. The Braves responded with five runs, including Dansby Swanson’s three-run homer, in the fourth to defeat the Marlins, 9-4, at Truist Park.
“Tonight was not my start,” Sánchez said through an interpreter. “I was having trouble with location. I will continue to work hard and just continue to get better.”
One of the top rookies in the National League, Sánchez (3-2, 3.46 ERA) had his second straight short outing. Although he was not involved in the decision, the hard-throwing right-hander was hurt by walks and deep counts. He issued four walks, marking six total in seven innings over his last two starts. In his first five big league starts, he walked six batters in total.
His pitch count reached a personal high of 38 in the first inning, and the Marlins already had Smith warming up. Miami was in a similar situation on Monday, when rookie Trevor Rogers logged 39 pitches in the first inning in a 5-4 loss.
“We had a guy up in the first,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “The other night we were up there with Rogers, and [Sánchez] was on the cusp. He had one more hitter. He ends up getting the last out there.”
Now riding a four-game losing streak, the Marlins (28-28) fell back to .500 and hold a half-game lead over the Phillies (28-29) for second place in the National League East. The first- and second-place teams in each division qualify for the playoffs, as do two Wild Card clubs. Miami’s magic number to clinch second place stayed at three.
“Obviously, we need to win games,” Mattingly said. “So you have to be concerned to the point that we have to win some games. You just can't limp your way in. From this point, we know we have to win games. But I'm not concerned at all about that group falling apart. They've bounced back all year long.”
Sánchez, the Marlins’ top prospect, has been a big factor in the club being in playoff position. The 22-year-old possesses a 100 mph fastball, and in his seven big league starts, he has shown signs of being a future ace.
But Sánchez is also going through some growing pains. In his last two starts, against the Nationals and Braves, he has allowed nine runs over seven innings. Then on Wednesday, a leadoff walk to Ronald Acuña Jr. was followed by Freddie Freeman’s RBI double, and the Braves quickly moved their way to a three-run first.
“Of course, the walk changed the inning, that first at-bat,” Sánchez said. “After I walked him, they got the hit and were able to score. To be honest, I don't like giving up walks.”
Sánchez continues to be closely monitored, especially since he missed time as a Minor Leaguer in 2018 due to right elbow inflammation.
“We know this guy is going to be one of the best pitchers in the game, as long as he stays healthy and continues to work,” Mattingly said.
Sánchez faced the Braves for the second time on Wednesday. On Sept. 8, he threw six shutout innings in a win at Atlanta.
"Our guys just had good at-bats,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “That's a rough ride right there. His stuff is so good. They fouled off some pitches and had a really good approach. I think it was good we had seen him."
The expected pitchers’ duel between Sánchez and Braves ace Max Fried never materialized. Fried, who allowed back-to-back homers in the first, made it through one inning. The left-hander tweaked his left ankle fielding Starling Marte’s bunt.
Jesús Aguilar and Brian Anderson belted back-to-back homers off Fried, who hadn’t allowed a home run all season. Fried had faced 220 batters before yielding a homer. Both shots were no-doubters: Aguilar’s blast, according to Statcast, went a projected 400 feet with an exit velocity of 108.1 mph, and Anderson’s drive was projected to be 446 feet at 106.8 mph.
Whatever momentum the Marlins had, the Braves responded. After Sánchez struck out two in a clean second inning, Atlanta tacked on a run in the third on Adeiny Hechavarría’s second RBI single of the night.
“What I'm seeing from behind … is that the guys need to establish a fastball early in the game,” Marlins shortstop Miguel Rojas said. “It happened to Trevor Rogers the other day. It happened to Sixto today.”