Let’s get the stipulations out of the way.
Yes, it’s spring training. Yes, it was only a four-inning appearance more than two weeks before the regular season begins.
But if Pablo Lopez has to state his case for why he should be in the Miami Marlins’ starting rotation, look no further than the performance he put on display Saturday night against the Washington Nationals.
All the 23-year-old did was throw four perfect innings — 12 batters up, 12 batters down — against a Nationals lineup that had seven of their projected starting position players.
The final tally:
▪ Zero hits.
▪ Zero walks.
▪ Four swing and miss strikeouts. The victims: Adam Eaton in the first, Brian Dozier in the second, Kurt Suzuki in the third and Michael A. Taylor in the third.
▪ 34 strikes — including seven swings and misses — on 50 pitches.
He had command of all three of his pitches — the fastball, curveball and change-up.
His fastball, which has shown an uptick in velocity this spring, sat between 92 and 94 mph throughout his time on the mound and touched 96 in the first inning. He backed the power up with command of both of his offspeed pitches, his curveball sitting in the high 70s and touching 81 while his change-up was in the mid-80s. The curveball and change-up accounted for four of his seven swings and misses.
“He was aggressive,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “Out of the box, good breaking ball. His change-up was good. There was nothing really bad about it.”
The performance only added to Lopez’s quality spring. Through three appearances, Lopez has given up just one run and three hits over nine innings. He has eight strikeouts compared to just one walk.
But Lopez knows he still has room to grow.
His main focus: Adding deception to his curveball. In simplest terms, Lopez wants the pitch to look like it’s a fastball as long as possible before it ultimately dips down in the zone as it crosses the plate.
“There’s always something to work on,” Lopez said.
From there, the goal is staying healthy. The Marlins were cautious with Lopez late last season, shutting him down at the end of August with a right shoulder strain. Lopez started 10 games for the Marlins in his debut MLB season, going 2-4 with a 4.14 ERA. He struck out 46 and walked 18 over 58 2/3 innings.
He’s competing to once again to be part of the starting rotation this season. Jose Urena has already been tabbed as the Opening Day starter, and Dan Straily is expected to be the No. 2 starting pitcher. The other candidates to fill out the rotation in addition to Lopez: Sandy Alcantara, Wei-Yin Chen, Trevor Richards and Caleb Smith.
“We know who the candidates are, for sure,” Mattingly said about the rotation, “but the actual order other than Jose, we still have a little bit of time that we can manipulate. I don’t know if it really matters. Everybody knows who’s pitching the first day. You have to get them set where they’re in order and getting their rest and their built up the right way.”
Mattingly is also going in with the knowledge that his initial starting rotation — whoever it might consist of — will likely not stay completely intact throughout the season. Injuries and needed rest days will happen. It is a 162-game schedule after all, so maintaining starting pitching depth is just as critical as assembling the rotation.
“The season’s long,” Mattingly said. “There’s times when that little break can help them. We’re mindful of being able to keep an eye on them.”