Miami Marlins

How three spot starters have helped ‘create a competitive environment’ for Marlins pitchers

Marlins’ Jordan Yamamoto explains first MLB start

Miami Marlins starting pitcher Jordan Yamamoto explains the emotions behind his first career MLB start on Wednesday, June 12, 2019
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Miami Marlins starting pitcher Jordan Yamamoto explains the emotions behind his first career MLB start on Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Miami Marlins cruised through their first 64 games without a hitch in their starting rotation. They went the farthest among all MLB teams this season to use just five starters. In the Marlins’ case, a young core of Jose Urena, Trevor Richards, Pablo Lopez, Sandy Alcantara and Caleb Smith. All five no older than 27 years old. Four — all but Urena — with less than a full season of experience at the MLB level.

They held their own. They came out every five games and, most of the time, kept the Marlins competitive.

And then, like clockwork, the inevitable injuries came.

“You kept hearing it so much,” Marlins president of baseball operations Michael Hill said last week. “It’s like ‘I wish they would stop tempting the baseball gods.’”

Urena and Smith, the 27-year-olds who formed the front and back ends of the rotation, went down with injuries last week. Smith is on the 10-day injured list with left hip inflammation. Urena is on the 60-day IL with a herniated disk in his lower back. A week later, the Marlins placed 25-year-old Pablo Lopez on the 10-day IL with a right-shoulder strain.

It has forced the Marlins to dig into their farm system and bring up a 24-year-old in Elieser Hernandez from Triple A New Orleans and two 23-year-olds in Jordan Yamamoto from Double A Jacksonville and Zac Gallen from Triple A to fill the spots with the hope they would carry their own.

They have done more than that.

Through five total starts, Hernandez, Yamamoto and Gallen have picked up right where Smith, Urena and Lopez left off — going deep into games and proving they can be effective starters the MLB level, even if just for a short stint.

Their combined stat lines: 30 2/3 innings, six runs allowed (five earned for a combined 1.47 ERA), 20 hits allowed, 31 strikeouts and just seven walks.

Hernandez and Yamamoto will start the final two games of the Marlins’ series against the Philadelphia Phillies on Saturday and Sunday to cap a seven-game road trip. Gallen’s next start is lined up for Tuesday against the Washington Nationals at Marlins Park to begin the team’s final homestand before the All-Star Break.

“For our club, and our organization, it’s good,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “A lot of people have talked about our starting pitching, and the kids that have been here. But then a couple of guys go down and the next starting pitcher comes up and looks just as good as the other guys. It creates that competition that we talk about within the organization. We want to create a competitive environment, in a good way.”

Let’s start with Yamamoto, who has already put himself in the Marlins’ record books after just two starts. The Pearl City, Hawaii, native who prioritizes effectively mixing and commanding a five-pitch arsenal over high velocity has thrown seven shutout innings in back-to-back starts — both against the St. Louis Cardinals. His 14 scoreless innings (and counting) to begin his Major League career well surpassed the Marlins franchise record by a starting pitcher to open his career. Josh Beckett previously held the record with 10 scoreless innings in 2001.

As for Hernandez, the 6-0 right-hander from Venezuela is fearless. He took a backward approach to reaching the MLB level, playing with the Marlins for the majority of the 2018 season as a Rule 5 draft selection and then honing his skills as a starting pitcher in Triple A New Orleans to start the 2019 season. In two starts with the Marlins this year, Hernandez has given up five runs (four earned) off 10 hits and one walk over 11 2/3 innings while striking out 13 batters. He has thrown 73.1 percent of his pitches for strikes (144 of 197) in this stretch.

Gallen gave up one run on five hits and two walks over five innings in his debut while striking out six.

Pitcher Zac Gallen, who the Miami Marlins obtained in the Marcell Ozuna trade with the St. Louis Cardinals, talks about getting ready to make his MLB debut.

They have fit right into a Marlins rotation whose 3.74 ERA leads the National League East, ranks fourth in the NL and seventh in all of MLB.

“They’re showing that they merit this opportunity,” Marlins veteran reliever Sergio Romo said. “The work that they’ve put forward, they’ve just continued it. It’s impressive because it’s not easy to do that in the big leagues. Big kudos to them that they can stay composed and just be themselves. That’s been the most impressive thing.”

It will also put the Marlins in an interesting predicament when their starters become healthy and roster decisions have to be made. While Urena will not return until August at the earliest, Smith’s and Lopez’s injuries aren’t as severe. Smith is expected to have a rehab start on Monday, which could put him in line to miss just one more start if the assignment goes well. Lopez’s MRI on Wednesday revealed no structural damage to his shoulder.

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Jordan McPherson covers the Miami Marlins and high school sports for the Miami Herald. He attended the University of Florida and covered the Gators athletic program for five years before joining the Herald staff in December 2017.