Miami Marlins

Marlins head into All-Star Break after late rally falls short against the Braves

Don Mattingly didn’t mince words postgame Sunday. He wasn’t happy.

It had nothing to do with the Marlins’ effort in their 4-3 loss to the Atlanta Braves at SunTrust Park, a loss that puts his team at 33-55 heading into the All-Star Break. Miami rallied from a four-run deficit to get within striking distance of taking a road series from the NL East-leading Braves.

Instead, it had to do with what he felt was poor officiating throughout the game, likely none bigger than a ninth-inning double play on which Mattingly believed Braves catcher Brian McCann should have been called for obstruction.

Here’s the setup:

Neil Walker, with the bases loaded and no outs in the ninth inning and the Marlins trailing the Braves by a run, hit a fly ball to Charlie Culberson in left field. Jorge Alfaro, representing the tying run, made his way toward home plate from third base on the sacrifice fly attempt.

Culberson fired the throw home to McCann, who tagged a sliding Alfaro on his right leg to complete the double play while his left and give the Braves some breathing room. McCann’s left foot was on home plate but the path to home plate appeared to be clear otherwise.

The rule in question by Mattingly — 6.01(i)(2) in the official MLB rulebook — states that “Unless the catcher is in possession of the ball, the catcher cannot block the pathway of the runner as he is attempting to score. If, in the judgment of the umpire, the catcher without possession of the ball blocks the pathway of the runner, the umpire shall call or signal the runner safe.” The rulebook goes on to clarify that the rule is not violated “if the catcher blocks the pathway of the runner in a legitimate attempt to field the throw.”

“I don’t know where the rule went — or maybe I don’t understand it — but when we looked at the replay, McCann is standing on home plate, and then he goes to directly taking home plate away with nowhere to slide,” Mattingly said. “That was exactly what this rule is in play for. In that scenario, really, Jorge should have cleaned his clock. That’s what the game doesn’t want, but then we’re not going to call that, so you’re going to allow him to basically take the plate away, block it the whole way, Jorge takes a little step outside. He should have buried him is really what the game asked him to do today.

“That’s what we’re trying to get away from within this rule, right?” Mattingly continued. “We don’t want collisions at home plate, but now we’re going to let the guy stand on home plate, block home plate, and if you’re a catcher you might as well do it. Everybody slides now. The league has basically put us in a position to have to slide and then they’re going to allow them to do that, so catchers might as well start blocking the plate the whole time because they’re not going to call it.”

Alfaro’s thoughts on the play?

“I didn’t have any room to slide,” Alfaro said. “I tried to slide straight to home plate. All I saw him between home plate and me. I tried to slide straight into home plate and see what they would call.”

Miguel Rojas flew out to center field two batters later to end the game.

And with that, the Marlins, scrappy as they had been throughout the first half of the 2019 season, had their final rally attempt ahead of the All-Star Break fall one run short.

The loss sends the Marlins (33-55) into the midseason break on a down note after showing marked improvement over the past seven weeks. The Marlins went 23-24 in their last 47 games after a 10-31 start to the season. Fourteen of the 24 losses down the stretch came against the Braves and Washington Nationals.

Braves starter Dallas Keuchel kept the Marlins in check through 7 1/3 innings, giving up five hits and a walk while striking out four. He exited in the eighth after giving up a walk to pinch-hitter Brian Anderson and a single to Rojas.

But Mattingly also was not happy with home plate umpire Marty Foster giving Keuchel, in Mattingly’s words, “the ball off the plate all day.” Keuchel had 15 called strikes on Sunday. According to his pitch chart on Statcast, at least six of those called strikes were outside the zone.

“When you keep giving him off the plate, when they’re calling that pitch on a guy that’s trying to sink it ... it forces you to have to chase that ball in there,” Mattingly said.

Reliever Chad Sobotka quickly struck out Cesar Puello before Garrett Cooper’s eighth home run of the season — a three-run shot that went 408 feet to center field — gave the Marlins some momentary life in the eighth.

Three consecutive singles from Alfaro, Harold Ramirez and Yadiel Rivera loaded the bases in the ninth before the game-defining double play.

The late comeback bid wasn’t enough to make up for another pedestrian start from Trevor Richards, who gave up four earned runs over five innings on six hits and five walks.

Most of the damage came in the third.

Ronald Acuna opened the frame with a walk and reached second on a Dansby Swanson groundout. Freddie Freeman hit an elevated cutter for an RBI single to bring Acuna home before Josh Donaldson ripped an elevated fastball 423 feet to right-center field to give Atlanta (54-37) an early 3-0 lead.

The Braves tacked on a fourth run in the fifth when Nick Markakis’ bloop single into left field scored Donaldson, who doubled one batter earlier.

The Marlins have now lost six consecutive Richards starts.

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.