For years, the Marlins always had a lefty specialist, someone they could always bring in to face the Ryan Howards, Freddie Freemans and Bryce Harpers of the National League East.
They have no such southpaw now.
With long-time lefty reliever Mike Dunn leaving via free agency, the Marlins are counting on their late-inning right-handers to handle the formidable task.
It’s one of the reasons they spent some of their offseason dollars on Junichi Tazawa, who has enjoyed about the same success against left-handed hitters as he has against right-handers.
“He’d be one of the guys we’d look at for that role,” said Marlins manager Don Mattingly, who is expected to start the season with five late-inning relievers, all of them right-handers.
It’s a departure from years past for the Marlins.
From 2010-11, Randy Choate was the Marlins’ “LOOGY” (left-handed one-out guy). The Phillies’ Howard went 0 for 4 against Choate during his two years with the Marlins.
Then, from 2012-16, it was Dunn who took over.
Though not a “specialist” in the strictest sense of the word, Dunn proved to be more than capable against some of the NL East’s most feared hitters swinging from the left side.
Freeman was 4 for 24 against Dunn. Howard was 2 for 17. Harper was 3 for 19.
The Marlins don’t have a designated go-to guy for those situations now.
But they feel Tazawa, Kyle Barraclough — just to name two — have the lefty stuff.
During his eight seasons with the Boston Red Sox, Tazawa held left-handed batters to a .262 average, a hair better than the .267 average right-handers posted against him.
Mattingly said Tazawa’s split-finger fastball gives left-handers trouble.
“It’s got late movement down,” Mattingly said. “It’s just a tough pitch to handle. It’s effective against everyone, but especially the lefties. It puts you in a spot as a hitter. You just can’t assume that something that comes out straight is a fastball. You’ve got to wait a second to make sure it’s not a split.”
Mattingly, a left-handed hitter in his playing days, said he “hated hitting it.”
The question for Tazawa is whether he still has the same stuff that made him a bulwark of Boston’s bullpen in 2013 and ’14. Tazawa was a key contributor to the Red Sox’s World Series team in 2013.
But after back-to-back seasons in which he made 71 relief appearances for them, his effectiveness dropped off in 2015 and ’16. Many have speculated that his troubles were because of overuse.
Tazawa said it’s hard to say whether his heavy workload was a contributing factor.
“I don’t really know,” he said through a translator. “But not being [able to] adapt to it was certainly a reason.”
Moving from the American League to the NL — as well as going from Fenway Park to pitcher-friendly Marlins Park — could help improve his results.
“But no matter how big the ballpark is, unless you do well, they’re going to write bad things about you,” he said. “If I perform bad, people are still going to criticize me.”
THIS AND THAT
▪ Jeff Locke said he is scheduled to begin throwing off a mound on Saturday as he continues to work his way back from a left biceps injury that has caused him to miss all of spring training.
“I think we’re progressing pretty well,” Locke said.
But Locke said, barring any setbacks, the earliest he expects to pitch for the Marlins is late April or early May.
“The one thing is I really never started spring training this year pitching-wise,” Locke said.
▪ Catcher A.J. Ellis is still working his way back from a hamstring injury that has caused him to miss most of spring training, but he remains hopeful he’ll be ready by Opening Day.
Ellis has been taking batting practice.
“It’s just the running that’s the final hurdle,” Ellis said. “Hopefully, by early next week or the weekend, we’ll run the bases again and re-test it out.”
Ellis said he never imagined the recovery time would take so long.
“When they said initially three to four weeks I said, ‘No way. I’ll be back way before that,’ ” Ellis said. “Maybe I pushed it a little quicker, trying to get back in play. We’re at three weeks right now. I hope to be back on the field at the four-week mark.”
▪ Thursday: Marlins RHP Dan Straily at St. Louis Cardinals RHP Adam Wainwright, 1:05 p.m., Jupiter.
▪ Friday: Marlins RHP Jose Urena vs. Washington Nationals (TBA), 7:05 p.m., Jupiter.