There’s no shame in losing to the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. This season, they have won more than two-thirds of their games at The Friendly Confines while outscoring opponents by 100 runs.
But the Miami Marlins went down convincingly on Monday night, going hitless with runners in scoring position and giving away extra outs on the base paths. The lack of offensive execution allowed Cubs right-hander Kyle Hendricks to complete the game himself (albeit it took 123 pitches).
Hendricks made his major league debut on July 10, 2014. He has gone the distance three times since then, which is three more times than the entire Marlins pitching staff. Dating back to June 4 of that year—a streak of 372 consecutive games—their bullpen’s consistently been called upon to finish the job, and the franchise is now barely a month away from setting a record for reliever reliance.
Henderson Alvarez blanked the Tampa Bay Rays for nine innings on June 3, 2014, in what feels like a totally different baseball universe. For one, Alvarez was leading Miami’s rotation, not making regular trips to Dr. James Andrews’ office for right shoulder treatment. “Hits” McGehee was one of the club’s main attractions, Jose Fernandez was lost for the summer, Rafael Furcal’s minor league rehab was being followed closely, and the Marlins were chasing the Atlanta Braves for NL East supremacy.
Alvarez obviously got the win for his excellent effort. On that same date, so did Jordan Zimmermann (for the Washington Nationals) and Dustin McGowan (for the Toronto Blue Jays). Like I said, different universe.
Three different Marlins managers have contributed to the streak of abbreviated starts. Just like Mike Redmond and Dan Jennings before him, Don Mattingly holds the power to end this on any given day, assuming that his pitcher is getting outs and working efficiently.
Therein lies the problem, however—the Marlins rotation isn’t putting Mattingly in a position to extend that lease. Jose Fernandez continues to be handled carefully in his first full post-Tommy John season and Adam Conley’s Third Time Through Issue has been well documented. Tom Koehler threatened to finish what he started on July 21 (8.0 IP, 2 H, 1 ER), but generally dooms himself with elevated pitch counts. His average of 17.1 pitches per inning is one of the highest among qualified National League starters, according to MLB.com.
Trade deadline acquisition Andrew Cashner seems most likely to challenge for a complete game down the stretch and prevent this from continuing into the next U.S. presidency. Cashner has already finished three starts in the majors, plus he’s headed for free agency this winter. There’s no reason to handle him with kid gloves.
As embarrassing as it would be to set the record for this kind of drought, it’s not necessarily an indictment on the team’s performance. The 2011-2013 Milwaukee Brewers hold the all-time mark with 407 straight non-complete games, and actually won the majority of those contests (including a division title). The 2016 Fish are legitimately competing thanks to a deep bullpen and—Monday’s loss notwithstanding—a productive lineup. The second-longest active streak belongs to the Baltimore Orioles (290 games), who are thriving with a similar roster composition.
Of course, all the innings that Marlins starters failed to finish from April through July were forced upon their relievers, and there’s a risk of them wearing down because of it. Five different members of Miami’s bullpen have pitched at least 40 MLB relief innings this season, tied with the San Diego Padres for most in the league.
The strange Colin Rea saga raises the same old concerns about production from the back end of the rotation. Complete games are an unrealistic expectation for Jose Urena and company, but more quality starts will be needed from the No. 5 spot to protect the late-inning options from overexposure.