Braves prepare for NLDS against familiar Marlins

The inexperienced Marlins, fresh off a 105-loss season, endured a coronavirus outbreak and had to play a bevy of doubleheaders to earn second place in the National League East this season, clinching their third postseason berth and first since 2003.

Miami then upset the Cubs at Wrigley Field, sweeping them in two games to set up an NL Division Series showdown with the Braves in Houston. For so long during their postseason drought, the Marlins were MLB’s punchline, trading star after star while racking up losses in front of small crowds. They’re now baseball’s Cinderella, trying to continue their run into the NL Championship Series.

How in the world did this happen so suddenly? Start with the Marlins' pitching.

“They have that one ingredient: They have that starting pitching,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “That trumps everything. The starting pitching they have, that’s an unbelievable equalizer in any situation. And their bullpen is pretty good, too. They run some good arms at you. So I think the strength of their pitching is going to overcome any adversity they could have.”

Miami starters Sixto Sanchez, Sandy Alcantara, and Pablo Lopez headline the young pitching talent Snitker mentioned. The Braves will see that trio in this series, though neither team has announced how it will line up its rotation.

The Marlins' offense isn’t as overpowering as their pitching can be, though it presents a much different challenge than the homer-dependent Reds. Miami ranked 17th in average (.244) and on-base percentage (.319), 21st in runs scored (263) and 25th in homers (60).

While those numbers aren’t impressive, they were enough to usually hang tight with the Braves in the regular season. Yes, the Braves hammered the Marlins 29-9 in a historic night. But the Braves outscored the Marlins only 39-35 in the other nine games.

“It’s quite drastically better, to be honest with you,” said Braves right-hander Josh Tomlin, comparing this Marlins lineup with last season’s version. "There’s not a break in their lineup. They’re more of a scrappy lineup, I feel like, than say the Cincinnati Reds, who have the ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark at any time. I’m not saying the Marlins don’t, they just seem like they’re more of a scrappier team.

"They put together good at-bats. They go the other way. They don’t strike out a lot, not against me at least (Miami ranked 10th in strikeouts). They’re grinders. They put the ball in play, foul you off, just wait for their pitch and try to put a good swing on it.

“Our job is to keep them off balance as much as possible, force them to put the ball in play. Us, having one of the better defenses in the league, I think it bodes well for us to go right at them, attack them and make them put the ball in play and let our defense work.”

The Marlins added veteran hitters Jesus Aguilar, Corey Dickerson and Matt Joyce over the offseason. They acquired former All-Star outfielder Starling Marte at the trade deadline, though his status is unclear with a finger fracture. It’s not a menacing lineup, but it’s a patient group that’s familiar with each of the Braves' pitchers.

Miami was responsible for the worst outing of Ian Anderson’s young career, scoring four runs off him in a three-inning start. Anderson allowed three runs in 5-2/3 innings in his last start against them, but the runs were unearned.

Kyle Wright allowed eight earned runs in two starts (seven innings) against the Marlins this season. It’s worth noting both came before his late emergence, however. Max Fried pitched only one inning in his latest outing against the Marlins, giving up two homers before leaving early with an ankle injury. He held the Marlins scoreless over 6-1/3 innings against them Aug. 15.

“They’ve added some really good veteran depth to go along with some of their players who are like ours, getting better as they play,” Snitker said. "They made some really good offseason moves to help out that young pitching they’ve accumulated. They’ve done a good job of putting that team together. That team was going to be good regardless of if it was 60 or 160. That team was built for a six-month season.

“We just got done playing the Marlins 10 times, so there’s familiarity with them and for us with them also. The more you see somebody, the more you better execute because they have a better idea of what you’re going to do to them and what’s going to happen to them. … It should be a good series.”

The Braves went 6-4 against the Marlins, who finished 31-29. It was the sixth consecutive season the Braves won the season series. Miami has won the season series against the Braves only four times in the past 20 seasons.

That won’t matter entering Tuesday, when the teams take the field in Houston for their best-of-five series. The Braves will be trying to eliminate the Marlins from the postseason for the first time. Miami is 7-0 in postseason series, winning the World Series in its past two trips (1997, 2003).

“That’s kind of nuts,” Snitker said. “That’s a hard thing to accomplish after being in a few of them now. Let’s hopefully end that.”