Nothing to lose. First trip to the playoffs in 17 years. Endured the sport’s first major COVID-19 outbreak.
The Cubs don’t need a reminder of how dangerous an opponent the Miami Marlins can be in the best-of-three wild-card series that begins Wednesday at Wrigley Field.
At least there’s no chance of fan interference, so the Cubs have that going for them.
“I think they’re going to be excited,” outfielder Kyle Schwarber said of the Marlins. “They’re going to be ready to come out on the field, and we’re going to have to be ready for that. We can’t take the no-postseason experience lightly because we saw what we were able to do to a very experienced Cardinals team in 2015.”
On paper, this matchup appears to hinge on the starting pitchers. The Cubs will use Kyle Hendricks and Yu Darvish in the first two games. They were two of the best in the National League, and both have started multiple World Series games.
The Marlins will use 24-year-old Sandy Alcantara in Wednesday’s Game 1 and 21-year-old rookie Sixto Sanchez, a pitcher the Cubs never have seen, in Game 2.
“We feel like these guys are capable against anybody of pretty much shutting you down if they’re throwing the ball good,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said.
Alcantara posted a 2.30 ERA during his five starts in September and sounded confident when he spoke to reporters on a Zoom call Tuesday.
“I think [the Marlins] believe in what I’ve been doing,” Alcantara said. “I think they know that I am the man, that I can go outside tomorrow and do my job. I feel great about the opportunity. I prefer to throw the first game because I think I can do it. I think [the Cubs] have got to be ready for me tomorrow, and we’ll see what happens.”
Alcantara literally advertises his pitching style on his sleeve. He has a tattoo on his arm that reads “6+4+3=2,” a nod to his ability to coax ground balls and double plays.
Alcantara also was one of the 18 Marlins who tested positive for the coronavirus in late July, had to bus from Philadelphia to Miami and then quarantine for a few weeks.
“My biggest challenge was during the quarantine,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep at night thinking about my teammates, thinking about what I can do to be ready. We lost like 18 players, but if something happens in life, you’ve got to carry [on].”
The Marlins ended up using 61 players this season because of the outbreak. They played seven doubleheaders and had one day off in September until the regular season ended Sunday.
“There’s been a lot of tough components to this season,” outfielder Corey Dickerson said. “Guys were really worn down, but we saw that goal that we had. We were so close, and we saw it through. This is very rewarding. We played way better on the road, so that’s definitely in our favor. Everybody is very confident.”
The description of the Marlins as a young team isn’t really accurate. Their starting pitchers are young, but the majority of their regular position players are at least 30, and their closer is 35-year-old ex-Cub Brandon Kintzler.
Miami added outfielder Starling Marte in a trade during the season. He’s a guy the Cubs faced in the playoffs during his Pittsburgh days. The Marlins aren’t a great hitting team, but third baseman Brian Anderson has 38 RBIs, and first baseman Jesus Aguilar has 34. That’s more RBIs than anyone on the Cubs collected this season.
Both teams are heading into this series with essentially the same mindset. If their starting pitchers are at the top of their game, they should be in good shape.
“We’re not taking anything for granted,” Hendricks said. “The playoffs are what you play for. When you make it year after year, maybe you grow a little bit accustomed to it. I think this group, we really don’t fall into that too much.
“We really do come in each day trying to attack each day, trying to win each day and try to keep our focus very limited. We’re having a lot of fun in this situation and just glad we’re back in the postseason.”