Miami Marlins

Could Pablo Lopez’s latest start be a ‘breakthrough’ for SP? He showed some signs

Marlins pitcher Pablo Lopez ready for the new season

Miami Marlins pitcher Pablo Lopez speaks with the media after the first day of spring training for pitchers and catchers at Roger Dean Stadium on Wednesday, February 13, 2019 in Jupiter, FL.
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Miami Marlins pitcher Pablo Lopez speaks with the media after the first day of spring training for pitchers and catchers at Roger Dean Stadium on Wednesday, February 13, 2019 in Jupiter, FL.

The first time through the order, there are few pitchers in MLB this season more dominant than Pablo Lopez. Opponents this season have gone just 6 for 51 at the plate the first time they see Lopez in a game. The Miami Marlins starting pitcher has only given up one run. The second time has been the issue, with opponents’ batting averages spike more than .200 and their on-base percentage shoots toward .400.

On Sunday, Lopez solved his middle-inning issues, it just wasn’t enough for the Marlins against the Atlanta Braves. Miami didn’t give Lopez any run support in a 3-1 loss to the Braves in 10 innings to close out a five-game homestand at Marlins Park before heading out on a seven-game road trip, which begins at 8:05 p.m. against the Chicago Cubs on Monday.

Even in a loss, Don Mattingly couldn’t help but wonder: Could this be a breakthrough for Lopez, who has flashed so much potential only to struggle the deeper he pitches into games?

“I’m hoping we got a little breakthrough,” the manager said Sunday, “because in the fifth you started to see what we’ve seen in the past: his velocity’s ticking way down. It’s like he’s pitching carefully.

“We talked to him between that inning and about, Hey, you’re at the top of the order, and he said, ‘I feel good.’ And you saw him ticking back up to 93, 94 [mph] and we feel like we’re hopefully crossing a little barrier there as far as how he has to approach it.”

As he often does, Lopez dominated his first time through the order. The right-handed pitcher tore through the first three innings, surrendering just a walk to outfielder Nick Markakis in the second inning. He struck out three batters his first time through the order -- plus a strikeout of Ozzie Albies to end the third inning the second time he saw the second baseman -- by leaning heavily on his fastball. The righty through 24 fastballs, three changeups and three curveballs to hold Atlanta without a hit the first time he went through the lineup.

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For his second time through, Lopez altered his attack. The righty finished the game at 88 pitches and 69 of those were fastballs. Lopez, who faced the top three hitters three times, threw 15 curveballs and 14 changeups in total. He left the Marlins (9-24) in a scoreless tie when he left after six innings.

“It’s just kind of paying attention during his bullpens and finding those little keys that help him get back to how he should be throwing,” catcher Chad Wallach said Sunday. “He’s well on his way. He’s so good already, he’s just a step away from being a really good pitcher and the progress he’s making is great. You can see it every time he goes out there.”

As Mattingly noticed, the immediate tell for Lopez’s middle-inning struggles comes from his velocity. Lopez turned over the order in the third inning, closing the frame with a strikeout against the Braves’ lead-off hitter, and threw his four-seam fastball at an average of 93.8 mph in the frame. In the fourth, Lopez’s average four-seam fastball dipped slightly to 92.9 mph, then plummeted to 91.2 in the fifth. Although Lopez did get through the order a second time unscathed, he did let Atlanta go 3 for 9 with a double.

However, the starter finished the game as strong as he started it. Lopez returned for the sixth inning to face the top of Atlanta’s order and made short work of the Braves, working a 1-2-3 inning before he left the game. In his final inning, Lopez’s four-seam velocity ticked back up to 92.4 mph. It might not all be mental for Lopez, but he certainly has the capacity to ramp back up.

“You try to be convicted in every single pitch that you’re going to execute in a good spot and you’re going to try to give 100 percent behind it,” Lopez said Sunday. “Even if it’s a miss, if it’s a miss with 100-ercent conviction it can still be a good result.”

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