As usual, mistakes for Caleb Smith were rare Tuesday in Miami. The starting pitcher carved through the Tampa Bay Rays for more than five innings with eight strikeouts — six of which came in the first three innings — and gave up only one extra-base hit.
It was a big one — big enough to beat the Miami Marlins in the opener of a quick two-game series at Marlins Park. Avisail Garcia blasted a 471-foot solo home run off Smith in the the second inning to give the Rays an early lead and all the cushion they would need for a 4-0 win against Miami.
“That was a fastball. I was trying to get it up,” Smith said. “I didn’t get it high enough.”
For the eighth time this season, the Marlins (10-30) failed to give their pitchers any run support and this time a solid, if unusually brief, outing by Smith was victimized. Tampa Bay (25-15) managed only four hits and two walks against Smith, and still managed to win with ease. The Rays chased Smith (3-1) from the game with a hit and walk to start the sixth, and Garcia quickly drove in his second run with a single off Nick Anderson as the first batter after the relief pitcher answered.
Charlie Morton went blow for blow with Smith and outlasted him for six shutout innings. The Tampa Bay starting pitcher gave up just three hits to Miami with no walks and five strikeouts. Morton (4-0) lowered his ERA from 2.64 to 2.32 in the win, which moves him into the top 10 in MLB.
Smith still sits just a notch ahead of him, though, and he was nearly as good Tuesday in front of 6,306 fans against a far more formidable lineup. He struck out two in the first inning, then two more after giving up the homer in the second and another two in the third. The left-handed pitcher worked a 1-2-3 fourth thanks to a caught stealing and followed it by dancing around two hits for a scoreless fifth.
The fourth inning was ultimately his downfall. Smith needed 13 pitches to finish off a strikeout of utility infielder Daniel Robertson for the first out of the inning and his pitch count never recovered. The Rays fouled off 35 pitches against Smith, who struggled with his slider command. The starter threw 32 sliders and got only five swinging strikes and four called strikes.
Smith entered Tuesday with a 41.7 whiff percentage and 26.1 putaway percentage — both the best among his three primary pitches. With the slider limited, Smith found himself in too many long counts.
“That’s a big factor,” Smith said. “That’s one of my better putaway pitches and when it’s not there it’s a lot harder.”
Still, the Marlins sent him back out to the mound with 87 pitches to handle the sixth. He only lasted three batters before his pitch count ran up to 106 and Miami pulled him after 5 1/3 innings with a one-run deficit ready to grow even larger.
“It kind of just seemed like he ran out of steam there at the end,” manager Don Mattingly said.
Drew Steckenrider gets second opinion
There hasn’t been much good news for Drew Steckenrider since the Marlins placed him on the injured list Wednesday. The initial diagnosis was just right elbow inflammation for the relief pitcher, who began the season as a closer candidate for Miami, but it quickly grew more dire. Three days later, the Marlins transitioned Steckenrider from the 10-day IL to the 60-day and an initial trip to Dr. Lee Kaplan diagnosed Steckenrider with a right flexor strain.
Now the right-handed pitcher is off to Dr. James Andrews for a second opinion.
“We’re fairly concerned,” Mattingly said. “The fact he’s getting a second opinion tells you the first opinion wasn’t very good. We’ll wait and see, but I’d say concerned.”
Steckenrider struggled before heading to the disabled list last week. In 14 1/3 innings, the reliever gave up six home runs, and posted a 6.28 ERA with 14 strikeouts and five walks. While pitcher Sergio Romo has established himself as Miami’s closer, the Marlins are now in need of help in the set-up role, which could mean increased high-leverage opportunities for 28-year-old rookie relief pitcher Nick Anderson.
▪ Riley Ferrell continues to inch toward a rehab assignment as he recovers from right biceps tendinitis. The relief pitcher, whom the Miami acquired from the Houston Astros in the Rule 5 draft in December, threw 1 2/3 innings at extended spring training Monday in Jupiter. The righty is on the 60-day IL and has yet to pitch this season after being shut down in the final week of spring training.
▪ Julian Fernandez is continuing his throwing program at extended spring training in Jupiter as he nears a return from Tommy John surgery. The relief pitcher spent his first five seasons in the Colorado Rockies organization and most recently pitched at Class A Asheville in 2017 before the San Francisco Giants took him in the 2017 Rule 5 draft. After Fernandez missed all of 2018, Miami claimed the flamethrowing righty on waivers in the fall. Fernandez has been clocked at 103 mph with his fastball and has been on the 60-day IL since February.
▪ Sixto Sanchez, the Marlins’ No. 1 prospect in the MLB.com rankings, made his debut with Double A Jacksonville on Monday after two starts with Class A Advanced Jupiter. The starting pitcher threw six shutout innings in Jacksonville. The righty held Double A Biloxi, a Milwaukee Brewers affiliate, to one hit and two walks with seven strikeouts on 85 pitches.