Braves shouldn’t lose to Marlins, and they won’t

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Braves manager Brian Snitker discusses the Marlins and their roster ahead of meeting in NLDS.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

The Reds in Round 1 were scary. The Marlins in Round 2 seem almost too easy. The key word there is “seem.” This is October, where nobody knows anything, and these are the Fish, who’ve never taken a division title but who have won twice as many World Series as the Braves, who’ve finished first 20 times since moving to Atlanta.

The National League East, even in this bite-sized season, was supposed to be a four-way scramble. The team projected to finish fifth was Miami, which hadn’t topped .500 since 2009 and hadn’t qualified for postseason since 2003, when they won it all. In 2018, they finished last, 26-1/2 games behind first-place Atlanta. In 2019, they finished 40 games in arrears.

And yet: Here both are. One will play next week for the NL pennant. A year after losing 105 games, two months after their season was nearly ended after 20 positive tests, the Marlins are staring eye-to-eye at the Braves, who are on another run of division titles. The Fish spent the entirety of the irregular season’s first full week not playing. They spent a week in Philadelphia, the final four days under quarantine. (It’s believed the virus was contracted in Atlanta, where the Marlins played two exhibitions.) They chartered sleeper buses to get home from Philly.

When finally they resumed play, they were almost unrecognizable. Wrote Jordan McPherson in the Miami Herald: “This is a team that had 17 new players join their roster on Tuesday, including seven who weren’t part of the team for any portion of spring training or summer camp, four in-house prospects who had yet to make their MLB debut and a few players Marlins manager Don Mattingly hadn’t even met in person before the game.”

And yet: The Marlins won in Baltimore that night.

Having become the poster team for COVID-19, the Marlins morphed into the exemplar of small sample sizes. They won their first five games after emerging from quarantine. That pushed them to 7-1. They would go 24-28 thereafter — owing to the week of postponements, they were forced to play seven doubleheaders — and wouldn’t win more than three in a row again. But they wouldn’t fall more than a game below .500, and they won five times against Philadelphia in a weird September seven-game series to take second place in the East.

They didn’t close with a rush. They came to Truist Park to begin the final week and lost three straight, the third game serving as the Braves' division clincher. The Marlins salvaged the series finale, beating Ian Anderson. The next night, 10th-inning sacrifice fly by Jesus Aguilar was enough to shade the Yankees and secure a playoff berth. Miami would finish 31-29.

You’d still do well to name five Marlins, and I just gave you Aguilar. They don’t hit much. (More than the Reds did, which would be true of almost every team in history.) Miami finished 21st among 30 MLB clubs in runs, 24th in OPS, 25th in homers. The pitching numbers don’t dazzle, either — 14th in starters’ ERA, 26th in bullpen ERA. The Marlins wouldn’t be here had extra qualifiers not been needed to fill out an expanded-by-six-teams tournament. It’s highly unlikely they’d have held up over 162 games.

Still, they upset the Cubs in Round 1, if we can call the result of any best-of-three an upset. The Cubs, who’d stopped hitting a while back, managed one run over two games. Sandy Alcantara and Sixto Sanchez gave the Marlins splendid starts. Corey Dickerson hit a three-run homer off Kyle Hendricks in Game 1. Garrett Cooper homered off Yu Darvish in Game 2. Brandon Kintzler closed both games. That was that.

On the day they eliminated the Cubs, the Marlins displayed T-shirts emblazoned with the legend, “Bottom Feeders.” That was what Phillies analyst Ricky Bottalico called them after they’d won the season opener in Philly. Let’s be honest, though: Even now, it’s hard to see them as anything else. The Braves are 126-70 against Miami since 2009. They won the season series 15-4 in 2019, 14-5 in 2018. They took six of 10 this season. They won 29-9 on Sept. 9 and 11-1 on Sept. 22.

The Miami Marlins celebrate after a 2-0 series-clinching victory against the Chicago Cubs in Game 2 of the National League Wild Card series at Wrigley Field in Chicago on Friday, Oct. 2, 2020. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Yeah, yeah. This is October, where weirdness can hold sway. The 2006 Cardinals went 83-78 and won the World Series behind emergency closer Adam Wainwright, who hasn’t had a save since. The Marlins have never lost a playoff series. Still, the Braves play this team a lot, and the thing we remember most — apart from 29-9 — is Jose Urena plunking Ronald Acuna. “I wouldn’t call them rivals,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said Monday.

Urena won’t be part of this series, having suffered a broken forearm on the regular season’s final day. The Braves will have to look elsewhere for inspiration. The thought of reaching the NLCS for the first time since 2001 should suffice.

Braves higher-ups fretted over the Reds' starting pitching, which proved as good as advertised. Nothing about the Marlins is half as frightening, except for this: They’re playing with house money. If they get swept, they’ll still have had their best season since 2003. If this were another best-of-three, we might make a case for them. This being best-of-five, we really can’t. Braves in four.

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