Resilient Marlins are a relative mystery for Cubs
A couple months ago, the Miami Marlins were a team that threatened to shut down the major league season when they had the first significant COVID-19 outbreak inside their clubhouse on the opening weekend.
Now they'll be pulling into Wrigley Field as a playoff team on Wednesday for a best-of-three series. Game 1 is scheduled for a 1 p.m. start.
Everyone knows what happened the last time these teams met in the playoffs, so there's no point in dwelling on that. This is the first time Miami has made the playoffs since 2003.
Last year, the Marlins lost 105 games, and this year they used 61 different players after losing 18 temporarily to the coronavirus.
"This group has been a solid group, a great group, actually; trustworthy from the standpoint they'll be ready to play," Miami manager Don Mattingly said Sunday. "Anything that's come their way, they've dealt with."
Obviously, these teams didn't play each other this season and the Marlins don't have many household names on the roster.
"I've watched them a little bit," Cubs manager David Ross said. "I know they've got some real team speed, they've got some guys that are having really good years. They've got some really young arms, they've got electric stuff.
"That division's got a lot of really good arms in it and it's a really talented division, in my opinion, as you look at it on paper. It seems from afar they believe in each other when no one else does. That's a powerful thing."
The Marlins' lineup isn't all that young, and they've got a few players with postseason experience. Their closer is Brandon Kintzler, 35, who played for the Cubs the past two seasons and against them for Washington in the 2017 NLDS.
But the Marlins have an impressive collection of young starting pitchers. The three right-handers who are likely to start in this series -- rookie Sixto Sanchez, Pablo Lopez and Sandy Alcantara -- are all 24 or younger with ERAs below 4.00.
The Cubs have never seen Sanchez. They saw Lopez once, last season on April 16, a 4-0 Cubs' win. Alcantara has started against them twice and gone 0-1.
This trio has no postseason experience, while the Cubs have a ton of it. But second baseman Jason Kipnis wondered how much that even matters this year.
"A lot of experience comes with maybe dealing with crowds, dealing with emotions, dealing with noise and all this stuff, and that's just not going to be the case this year," Kipnis said. "I can't tell how valuable some of that will be.
"This year, it's just going to seem like the games we're playing. No one's there. It's just a different year. I think some guys who are experiencing it for the first time might have more success than they have otherwise."
Offensively, the Marlins rank near the bottom of MLB in most categories except stolen bases. But the Cubs haven't been hitting it well this season either.
Miami has two players in the top 20 in RBI in the National League, third baseman Brian Anderson with 38 and first baseman Jesus Aguilar with 34. In comparison, David Bote leads the Cubs with 29 RBI.
The Marlins had two players leave Sunday's win over the Yankees with injuries. Outfielder Starling Marte was hit by a pitch in the head and starting pitcher Jose Urena was hit on the right hand by a line drive.
Against the White Sox on Sunday, the Cubs got home runs from Kris Bryant, Bote and Billy Hamilton on the way to building a 10-1 lead. Then Brailyn Marquez, making his major-league debut, and Duane Underwood Jr. gave up 7 runs in the final two innings before hanging on for the 10-8 win.
The highlight for the Cubs was five strong innings from Adbert Alzolay, who has put himself in the mix for a playoff role. In his last two outings, Alzolay has allowed 2 runs and 4 hits over 9 innings, with 15 strikeouts. He's been fine-tuning his pitches in South Bend for much of the season and is getting impressive movement.