Miami's mix-and-match bullpen works, until …

2 years ago

SAN DIEGO — When Marlins reliever Cole Sulser and shortstop Miguel Rojas tag-teamed for an unconventional fielder’s choice for the second out of the ninth inning Sunday afternoon, it seemed as though Miami had caught a break and would escape Southern California with a four-game series split.

But former Marlins catcher Jorge Alfaro had other plans.

Following a mound visit by pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr., Sulser hung a first-pitch breaking ball that Alfaro took deep for a pinch-hit, three-run homer in the Marlins’ 3-2 walk-off loss to the Padres at Petco Park.

“It’s a brutal way to end the series,” Sulser said. “Feels always terrible to let your team down, especially when they go out there and do their job well. The rest of our pitchers did an awesome job for eight innings. Trevor [Rogers] did great, [Anthony] Bass did great, [Steven] Okert. Everyone who was in there. It’s a pretty terrible feeling to go in there and blow it at the very end.”

It was somewhat of a surprise to see Sulser in the ninth, considering Anthony Bender had received all but three of the club’s save opportunities this season. In those three instances, he was nursing hip soreness. Sulser, who earned 13 saves for the Orioles from 2020-21, had another during that stretch when Bender was unavailable. Sunday marked the first blown save outside of Bender, who is 6-for-8 in save chances but also has lost two other games.

Following Rogers’ five scoreless frames, however, manager Don Mattingly turned to Bender in the sixth inning to face Austin Nola, Jurickson Profar and Trent Grisham. Bender worked a perfect inning. Bass, Miami’s closer to open the 2021 season, then retired five in a row before Okert finished off the eighth with a strikeout of left-handed-hitting Eric Hosmer. 

“Sulser is a left-right guy,” Mattingly said. “We like him both ways. He’s been good for us. Bender was in a good spot for him, and the same with Anthony. It’s not necessarily the inning that they’ll always pitch in, but we liked the matchups right through that area. Felt like the seventh, eighth were both kind of right-handed spots.”

Navigating the late innings has been a challenge for the Marlins, who lack an established closer but have several high-leverage arms. Another will join the mix in Dylan Floro, who recorded a club-high-tying 15 saves in 2021. He is nearing a return from the injured list. On Friday, he tossed two innings in his fifth rehab appearance recovering from right rotator cuff tendinitis. 

“He’s bounced back good, so we’ll see where we go,” Mattingly said. “I don’t know if [general manager Kim Ng] and those guys have made a decision exactly when or where. But he threw the ball good. The other day, they were happy with how he bounced back. He’s healthy.”

A graduate of Ramona High School in San Diego County, Sulser had gotten off to a strong start with his new club. Acquired in a trade with Baltimore a few days before Spring Training ended, he entered Sunday with a 0.77 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP in 12 appearances. Mattingly said what makes Sulser so successful is his ability to add and subtract, in particular with his “Bugs Bunny-ish” changeup and fastball rising above the zone.

Sulser struck out Nola, then allowed a base hit to Profar to begin the ninth. On the ensuing play, Joey Wendle’s throw to second base got away from Rojas and Profar tried to take advantage, racing for third with no one on that side of the infield because of the shift. Sulser beat him to the bag, however, and applied the tag after a throw from Rojas. But C.J. Abrams’ single to left kept the rally alive. 

Out from the on-deck circle emerged Alfaro, who came over with prospect Sixto Sánchez in the J.T. Realmuto trade of February 2019. As the Marlins’ primary backstop from 2019-21, Alfaro posted a slash line of .252/.298/.386 with 25 homers and 103 RBIs in 253 games. When Miami acquired Gold Glove-winning catcher Jacob Stallings over the offseason in order to prioritize game-calling and defense for its strong pitching staff, Alfaro was dealt to San Diego for cash or a player to be named. 

“Facing my old teammates, it was fun,” Alfaro said. “Whenever we step on the field, it’s baseball. We’re against each other. But after that, we’re all friends. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to compete against them. I’m always going to try to beat them. But it was fun. It was fun to play against them.”