Watching the Miami Marlins and Atlanta Braves play the National League Division Series is like watching a smaller version of the Caribbean Series.
The low-budget Fish are banking heavily on a trio of talented but inexperienced Latino pitchers, while the Braves have surrounded likely NL MVP Freddie Freeman with a pair of Latino heavyweights, leadoff man Ronald Acuña Jr. and free agent signee Marcell Ozuna, who led the league in home runs and runs batted in during the regular season.
In Tuesday’s opener of the best-of-five series, all played on the neutral ground of Houston’s Minute Maid Park, Acuña Jr. led off with a home run and Ozuna laced a game-tying double during a six-run seventh inning. It was the biggest one-inning explosion by the Braves in any postseason game dating back to 1998.
As one of 11 children, Marlins starter Sandy Alcantara knew he had to share sparingly. So he held the hard-hitting Braves to three runs as he nursed a 4-3 lead into the fateful seventh. But he almost got tossed from the game in the third after hitting Acuña in the hip with a pitch timed at 97.5 miles per hour.
It was the fifth time (including the regular season) that the Venezuelan outfielder has been plunked by the Fish after hitting a home run.
Acuña, though tempted to charge the mound, appealed to the umpire instead, along with Atlanta manager Brian Snitker, but the result was merely a warning to both sides against additional incidents.
It may be fortunate for the Marlins that veteran starter José Ureña, with an established reputation as a headhunter and a history with Acuña, is unavailable because of injury, along with centerfielder Starling Marte.
Without Ureña, Marlins manager Don Mattingly must make do with a rotation led by the inexperienced but hard-throwing Sixto Sánchez, Pablo López, and Alcantara. Sánchez, the youngest player on either roster, is 21, while Lopez and Alcantara, both three-year vets, are 24.
Sánchez averages 97.6 miles per hour, with Alcantara at 96.5, according to Statcast. Sánchez reached triple digits seven times, explaining why the Chicago Cubs scored just one run in dropping both of their first-round games to the Marlins.
Matttingly is counting heavily on his starters because the Marlins bullpen allowed a 5.50 earned run average during the regular season. Many of the 174 roster moves the manager made in 2020 because of a team-wide COVID-19 outbreak involved the pitching staff.
“We trust our starters,” Mattingly said before the best-of-five series started. “Every guy who goes out there usually has better stuff than anybody else we’ve got in the ‘pen.”
“They are young and inexperienced, but it’s just baseball. We told them to go out, stay on the attack, and make pitches. If you get hit, you get hit.”
Alcantara did that Tuesday, fanning eight and walking only one while working into the seventh. But reliever Yimi Garcia, who gave up only one run all season while posting a 0.60 earned run
average, took a pounding from the minute he entered. He gave up three earned runs, including a crippling three-run homer by ex-Met Travis d’Arnaud, before Dansby Swanson greeted reliever James Hoyt with another, capping Atlanta’s scoring.
The Braves not only won six of their ten meetings against the Marlins during the virus-shortened 60-game season but also set a National League record by scoring 29 runs – squeezed into six consecutive innings – in a single game. Only when a long Acuna Jr. fly was caught in the eighth did the Braves miss tying the 30-run, single-game record held by the Texas Rangers.
Thanks to that game, Atlanta hit .280 against the Marlins while yielding a .255 mark. On the year, the Braves finished second in the majors in both home runs and runs scored. Only the Los Angeles Dodgers, facing a steady diet of mediocre Western Division pitching, did better.
Atlanta, which has home-field advantage because it is a 2020 division champion, won the Tuesday opener, 9-5, but the Latinos made their presence felt early. After Acuña’s leadoff home run, Miguel Rojas tied it with a solo shot for Miami leading off the second inning. The Fish followed with a three-run burst against Atlanta ace Max Fried, a lefty who lasted four innings and yielded four runs in his worst performance of the year. But he could now be ready to pitch a Game 5 on short rest if necessary.
Both the Braves and Marlins have not been postseason winners for years. Atlanta last won a postseason series in 2001 but has not won a pennant since 1999 or a World Series since 1995.
Miami has not reached the playoffs since 2003, when it won its second world championship (see also 1997). In fact, the team proved Fish can fly seven times without defeat in postseason play to date. But this Braves team is far more powerful than the one they beat in six games in the 1997 NL Championship Series.
More than a half-dozen countries around the Caribbean basin are represented in the Marlins-Braves series.
Dominican players include Sandy Alcantara, Sixto Sánchez, Yimi Garcia, and Edward Cabrera of the Marlins and Marcell Ozuna, Huascar Ynoa, and Cristian Pache of the Braves.
The Venezuelan contingent features Miguel Rojas, Jesús Aguilar, and Pablo López of Miami and Acuña Jr., 2012 World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval, and the inactive Ender Inciarte of Atlanta.
Miami catcher Jorge Alfaro hails from Colombia, home of former Atlanta pitcher Julio Teheran, while inactive Braves reserves Johan Camargo and Adeiny Hechavarria hail from Panama and Cuba, respectively. Ozzie Albies (Braves) is from Curacao, while Miami’s Isan Diaz is from Puerto Rico and Jazz Chisholm is from the Bahamas.
If money talks, Atlanta should have little trouble disposing of the pesky Marlins. The Braves rank 14th in the 30-team majors with a payroll of $63,061,93, according to Spotrac, and is about twice the size of Miami’s $31,330,593, which ranks 27th.
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