February 2, 2023

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Prioritizing mental game helps Sánchez, Rojas succeed

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MIAMI — Yogi Berra once proclaimed that “baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.” More so than any lineup decision or pitching change, arguably Marlins manager Don Mattingly’s toughest challenge so far this season has been keeping his scuffling players upbeat. 

After being given a game off, both Jesús Sánchez and Miguel Rojas homered in Tuesday night’s 5-1 victory over the Nationals at loanDepot park. Right-hander Cody Poteet tossed 4 2/3 scoreless innings in his first start of the season, and five relievers followed to contain Washington.

“I think that’s part of it, but you rely on your staff, too,” said the ever-positive Mattingly, who recently binged the feel-good show “Ted Lasso.” “The guys in the cage, [bench coach James Rowson], we talk about those types of things. [Pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr.] possibly if it’s on the pitching side. And then you rely on some experience of seeing guys go through things. You see the faces, and you see the looks, and the body language, and sometimes you want to let them fight through it. And then other times it’s like, ‘OK, let’s give this guy a couple of days.’”

Sánchez and Jazz Chisholm Jr. were the primary reasons for the club’s 12-8 April, offsetting the slow starts at the plate for the veterans in the lineup. Entrenched in the middle of the order, Sánchez was slashing .340/.386/.623. But since his last multihit game on April 23, Sánchez had gone 6-for-63 (.095) with one extra-base hit in 19 games — 13 without hits. During that stretch, Miami went 8-11, though that included six wins from its seven-game streak.

Mattingly had given Sánchez both Monday and Tuesday off to reset, but Sánchez took over in center field to start the fifth inning after Bryan De La Cruz exited with a right forearm contusion because of a hit-by-pitch.

Sánchez made an immediate impact, sending former Marlin Steve Cishek’s hanging slider over the center-field wall for a solo shot in the sixth to extend the Marlins’ lead to 2-0. It was Sánchez’s fourth homer of the season, and his first since April 21.

“I’ve been working really hard with [hitting coaches] Marcus [Thames], with [Edwar Gonzalez],” Sánchez said. “As we know, this is a mental game. Everything’s in your head. You’ve got to always be prepared. I wasn’t playing, got into the game, and I was very loose at the plate. Just trying to look to make some contact and do my job.”

The 24-year-old Sánchez said he never had a stretch like this in the Minors, but with the support of the coaching staff and teammate Jesús Aguilar, in particular, he has stayed positive. Over the weekend, Mattingly wondered whether the mental challenge of playing center field on a daily basis, rather than the physical toll, was playing a role in Sánchez’s struggles. It wasn’t anything mechanical, according to Sánchez, who emphasized that “everything is in your mind.”

The same could be said for Rojas, who entered Tuesday with a .190/.227/.267 slash line in 30 games. Tuesday marked his first three-hit game of the season. His leadoff homer in the fifth off Nationals starter Joan Adon broke a scoreless deadlock, and he finished a triple shy of the cycle

Miami’s longest-tenured player and unofficial captain, Rojas admitted to putting pressure on himself to carry the club and help in any way. Since joining the organization ahead of the 2015 season, Rojas has been around for the highs and lows. He played with the likes of Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich, then bought into the ensuing rebuild, experienced a playoff run in 2020 and signed an extension over the offseason to be around through 2023.

Of late, Rojas has been reminded about the people in his corner. On Monday, he and Mattingly spoke about his role. After a hitless performance, Rojas and Rowson spent an hour talking about baseball and life. He was reminded that a bad month is now in the past, and it’s how you respond in a long season that matters most.

“I’ve been kind of like the middle part of what we’ve been doing the last seven years,” Rojas said. “Now we have a different personnel. I need to be able to relax a little bit more and actually let the other guys in this clubhouse that have been playing baseball for a long time actually be part of what we want to do.

“I don’t need to feel the stress that I need to do it on my own every single night. And I feel like as soon as I can take that off my shoulders and just start enjoying the game a little bit more, and instead of putting extra pressure on myself, of, ‘I have to do it,’ I feel like things are going to start coming around.”

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