MIAMI — A scattering of boos descended upon loanDepot park when Marlins fans realized ace Sandy Alcantara wasn’t taking the mound for the bottom of the ninth in Saturday night’s 4-1 victory over the Nationals.
Alcantara was on the cusp of a second consecutive nine-inning complete game — something that hadn’t been done in five years, since Corey Kluber did so during a dominant stretch in August 2017 en route to the American League Cy Young Award.
The 27-year-old Alcantara, who continues to bolster his case for the first Cy Young Award in franchise history, was at a reasonable 99 pitches. In 18 of his previous 30 starts, he had thrown more than that.
“It’s always hard, because I don’t want to leave the game,” said Alcantara, who has five of MLB’s 31 complete games in 2022. “Doesn’t matter how many innings I throw. They know that I want to finish all the games. Ninety-nine pitches, that’s nothing for me. I think I’ve been doing a pretty good job trying to prepare myself to go outside and give my heart for my team.”
This will-they-won’t-they between manager Don Mattingly and Alcantara has become a recurring episode this season. Alcantara is a unicorn in modern baseball, expecting to go the distance when three times through the order has become taboo.
Including Saturday, Alcantara has tossed at least eight frames 13 times, more than double the amount of anyone else (Aaron Nola is next with six). That mark also leads all Major League clubs (St. Louis is closest with 11).
“That’s one of those [where]we pile up enough innings on him that to let him go, he has any kind of struggles, it’s going to be hard to take him out 110, 112, 115 [pitches], whatever that ends up being,” Mattingly said. “And it doesn’t seem to make any sense for the club where we’re at right now. He did his job. We got a three-run lead, if we can’t hold it …
“He was actually OK. He asked me how many he had. I told him he had 99, and he didn’t really fight me. I think he knows where he’s at in the season. He knows he’s got a ton of innings. It really wasn’t that hard.”
During his pregame scrum, Mattingly said Alcantara will make two more starts, which would line up as Friday in Milwaukee and Oct. 5 against the Braves to close out the season. He is at 220 2/3 frames.
If anything, the ninth-inning boos were an indication of how much fans — of the Marlins or baseball in general — appreciate the excellence on the mound and want to see more of it. In arguably the greatest season by a pitcher in Marlins history, how did Alcantara outdo himself?
What about throwing a 94.9 mph slider, the fastest of his career?
Alcantara did just that to strike out Joey Meneses in the sixth inning. It was payback, seeing as the 30-year-old breakout star ambushed a first-pitch 99.2 mph sinker for a two-out homer to right in the first for the lone blemish on Alcantara’s evening.
“It’s obviously very difficult facing someone of his caliber, those kinds of starters,” said Meneses, who ranked Alcantara the best pitcher he has faced. “It’s a matter of making adjustments, and it’s hard to make the adjustments as well. But it’s just a very difficult at-bat in general.”
The only time multiple runners reached in the same inning was in the second, but Alcantara induced a double play and a popout to escape the trouble. That began a stretch where the righty retired 14 of the next 15 batters, seven via K, in an 11-strikeout showing.
Or what about a 101 mph four-seamer at the top of the zone that Lane Thomas couldn’t catch up to, ending the eighth?
Like so many other times this season, Alcantara found another gear in the middle of his outing and finished strong. He struck out the side in the eighth to make Mattingly’s decision a tougher one.
“I know how to use my velo, how to use my breaking ball,” said Alcantara, who is one K shy of his second straight 200-strikeout season. “You guys can see. I can start the game throwing 97, 98. In the [eighth]inning, I’ve got all my power throwing 100, 101.”