Two Miami Marlins pitchers went into manager Don Mattingly’s office on Saturday, but only one came out of it with the news he’d been hoping for. Jose Urena learned that he will start on Opening Day against the Chicago Cubs on March 29, while veteran Dan Straily is scheduled for the second game of the series.
After performing at a similar level last summer, Mattingly had a tough time deciding who should kick off the 2018 regular season.
“It was basically almost a coin flip from that standpoint,” he told assembled reporters, including Shandel Richardson of the Sun Sentinel. “I feel like a lot is going on. It’s going to be a little bit crazy Opening Day, different routines. I think Dan is a little more routine-oriented than Jose…I think it will be more of a normal day the second day. And Jose, with the craziness, I don’t mind him being a little jacked up.”
Last year, Urena finished 14-7 with a 3.82 ERA. This spring, he is 2-0 and has struck out six batters while boasting a 1.29 ERA. He will become the 16th different pitcher to start a Marlins opener.
“I know they both wanted it,” Mattingly said. “It seems like all pitchers love that honor pitching Opening Day. You could have gone either way. I don’t feel like it makes a difference. We need both these guys to throw 30 starts, and they both know that.”
Before the announcement was made, Straily made it clear he wanted to be the Opening Day starter after debuting in the No. 2 role in previous years.
“Everyone in here shows up to camp with starting pitcher attached to their name. You want Opening Day. That’s like a rite of passage. It’s an honor to be Opening Day starter.”
Though disappointed, Straily won’t let the decision define his season. He is focusing on the big picture.
“Whether I get it or not, we’re not preparing for just one start,” Straily said. “Our job is for 34-plus…You’re still preparing for the same amount of work for the season.”
Mattingly said he went with Urena because he felt he would better feed off the special atmosphere that comes with Opening Day games.
“I think he’s an energy guy. I think he likes the excitement of an Opening Day. I know Dan wanted it, too. But Jose in a sense, what he does out there, he’s more off energy than what Dan does.”
A year ago, Urena went to spring training uncertain of his future. Having exhausted his minor league options, the Marlins couldn’t send the 25-year-old back to the minors without clearing waivers first. After starting the season in the bullpen, he joined the rotation and become one of the Marlins’ top starters, ranking second only to Straily in strikeouts and innings pitched.
“Hopefully, improvement continues to come from that,” Mattingly said. “You see, just physically, a guy that’s changing all the time. He was really lean [initially]. This is a guy that’s kind of turned into a man in the sense of his body.”
Urena continued to make physical progress this past winter, frequently posting his intense workouts on Instagram.
What made the competition special is how Straily and Urena have embraced their roles as leaders. They are the only pitchers who have already earned spots in the rotation. During the crazy offseason, they even exchanged texts about how to set a positive example for the rest of the pitching staff.
“Him and I, we’ve talked in the offseason,” Straily said. “Just kind of coming back and forth about what we’re trying to bring culture-wise to the guys around us in the starting pitcher roles. What makes a starting staff elite and how can we work toward going that direction.”
With an Opening Day starter chosen, Mattingly now has to fill out the rest of the rotation. There are at least six pitchers still in the mix for the remaining three spots, including Jacob Turner, Caleb Smith, Sandy Alcantara, Adam Conley, Jarlin Garcia and Justin Nicolino.
Mattingly continues to evaluate all of those candidates.
“I think we’ve got a better idea of what we want to do from the way the guys have thrown the ball so far,” Mattingly said. “Obviously, that could change also. There’s combinations of way to go with starter, reliever. It really is still up in the air with the outings.”
Including Sunday’s matchup with the New York Yankees, the Marlins have 15 Grapefruit League games remaining to get everything sorted out.