The Marlins can point to errors (they lead baseball with 16), a shoddy bullpen (they have given up six homers after the eighth inning this season, including four game-winners) and inconsistent starting pitching as reasons why they’ve dropped nine of their past 10 games.
But they can’t put any of the blame on Tom Koehler. The 28-year-old right-hander from the Bronx — slotted as the Marlins’ No. 5 starter — is the only pitcher who has won a game over this tough stretch. In Tuesday’s 11-2 romp over the Nationals, he became just the 20th pitcher in Marlins history to toss at least seven scoreless innings and allow only one hit.
Off to a 2-1 start with a 1.89 ERA this season, the numbers show Koehler has been the Marlins’ second-best starter behind Jose Fernandez since last September. He has posted a 4-2 record, a 2.64 ERA, and opponents are hitting just .213 against him over his past eight big-league starts.
“I see such a confident guy,” Marlins manager Mike Redmond said. “I look back to last year’s spring training. He really struggled, threw up in the zone a lot. The ability to give him a year’s worth of starts was huge. It helped him to really be a better pitcher, command the strike zone.
“At times, I think he still rushes a little bit and falls behind some hitters. But at the same time, too, he’s got great stuff to execute his pitches. I think you saw [Tuesday night] after the fifth inning. It’s good to see that when you’re kind of reaching that late [in the game], 95-pitch count, it’s nice to see a guy power through that and walk away with a positive feeling and be able to execute those pitches.”
Four years older than anybody else in the starting rotation who broke camp, Koehler hardly comes from the same pedigree that other Marlins starters do. Fernandez and Jacob Turner were first-round picks. Henderson Alvarez tossed a no-hitter last season and played for the Venezuelan national team in the World Baseball Classic. And Nathan Eovaldi was what the Marlins got in exchange for Hanley Ramirez.
An 18th-round pick out of Stony Brook University, Koehler went 17-19 with a 4.88 ERA in college. He started three seasons at Triple A New Orleans, where he went an unimpressive 24-20 with a 4.44 ERA before injuries forced the Marlins to call him up, and he joined the rotation in mid-May. This spring, after going 5-10 with a 4.44 ERA in 23 starts last season, he had to fight off left-hander Brad Hand just to get the final spot in the rotation.
But he’s here, hungry and a big reason why the Marlins aren’t heading into Friday’s series opener against the Mariners on a 10-game slide.
“He’s always been able to throw his curveball for a strike, but he’s mixing in the changeup a little bit more this year to the lefties, and it’s giving hitters a third pitch to think about up there other than the fastball and the big curveball,” catcher Jeff Mathis said. “I think a lot of it is confidence, along with maturing as a pitcher, knowing what to do to guys.
“Tuesday was a great example. He threw the ball inside a lot, using the sinker on righties to keep them off his sliders and breaking balls away. He’s just grown a lot as a pitcher over the last three months of last year and this year.”
Koehler said the Marlins shied away from pitching inside too often during their eight-game slide, and it hurt them. He set out against the Nationals on Tuesday to establish that part of the plate, and it angered Ian Desmond, who took exception to one inside pitch that set off a benches-clearing argument.
“No matter who you are, you have to be able to throw it in the inside part of the plate or you’ll get hammered,” Koehler said. “I’m not saying you have to throw 100 pitches, 90 of them on the inside corner. Just let teams know you will throw inside off the plate and inside for a strike, and it will help everybody out. It will help the bullpen out later in games. That’s our job.”
A former center and tight end on his high school football team and an undersized power forward on his high school basketball team, Koehler said he never has been fearful of sacrificing his body or getting dirty. So pitching inside is nothing he’s afraid of.
“When I started to really become a fan of the game was when Roger Clemens ended up coming to New York,” Koehler said. “I wore 22 pretty much all the way through college because of him. Everything he was about, his work ethic, bulldog mentality on the mound — how he was going to go after you with his stuff, and if you didn’t like it that was too bad — was something I really admired watching.”
That same bulldog mentality is what Koehler hopes he can provide the Marlins the rest of the season. With top prospects Andrew Heaney, Justin Nicolino and Adam Conley waiting in the wings, he wants to make it hard on the Marlins should they decide to make changes.
“Just because they awarded me the spot out of spring training, my work isn’t over,” Koehler said. “I know I’ve got to keep going out there every time I get the ball and keep the team in it so I can prove they made the right decision. That’s how I look at it.”
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