Don’t Call It an Upset: Marlins Blank Cubs, Move on To NLDS

There was a philosophical quandary after Miami’s 2–0 Game 2 win over Chicago: Is it really an upset loss if the higher seed never looked like the favorite? The Cubs — NL Central champs, No. 3 in the postseason field, blessed with talent — are gone. The Marlins — bottom feeders the last several years, season nearly ended by COVID before it got started, built out of spare parts and held together with string, in the postseason by virtue only of its expansion — are moving on. And after two games in an empty and chilly Wrigley Field, that result doesn’t feel like a fluke.

The numbers on Chicago’s side of things are grizzly: 18 innings played, one run scored, that coming on a single hit: Ian Happ’s solo homer off Sandy Alcantara in the fifth inning of Game 1. Since then, no runs in 13 straight innings, most of them quiet and all of them frustrating. You saw plenty of that in Game 2: After struggling to get the measure on rookie righty Sixto Sánchez and his booming fastball early on, Cubs hitters seemed to figure something out the second time through the order. In the fourth, Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber drew back-to-back walks to open the frame. One out later, Jason Heyward cracked a broken-bat single to right, and perhaps feeling pressure to get on the board, third base coach Will Venable sent Contreras — not a glacier like most catchers, but no one’s idea of Billy Hamilton — from second. The play was close, but a strong throw from Matt Joyce and a nice tag by Chad Wallach got him at home to end the threat and keep things scoreless.

There were more chances for the Cubs after that. They loaded the bases in the fifth on two singles and a hit-by-pitch with two outs only to have Schwarber lunge at a low Sánchez offering and lift it lazily and harmlessly into left. In the eighth, Contreras took a Yimi García pitch off the arm (after unsuccessfully leaning into a slider earlier in the at-bat) with one out, but Schwarber and Kris Bryant both flew out to end it. And though the ninth started promisingly with a leadoff double from Heyward, he never moved from second as Javier Báez, David Bote, and pinch-hitter Jason Kipnis all struck out against Brandon Kintzler to finish it.

All told, Chicago collected just nine hits, only three for extra bases, in 69 trips to the plate. Baez, Bryant, Schwarber, and Anthony Rizzo combined to go 1-for-29 with a single, two walks, and nine strikeouts. Happ was literally the entirety of the offense. No button that David Ross pushed worked, though one gets the sense that said button wasn’t actually connected to anything. For all the would-be superstars up and down the lineup, Chicago had been treading water on offense all of September. It can hardly come as a surprise that two games tacked onto that long and dry stretch didn’t result in an immediate turnaround.

That said, Miami’s excellent young starters certainly deserve credit for throttling that lineup. Alcantara was brilliant in Game 1, and while Sánchez seemed to lose steam toward the end of his turn, he still hurled five shutout innings with six strikeouts. His four-seamer was untouchable, averaging 98.3 mph, peaking at 101, and generating 11 swings-and-misses out of 66 offerings. The 22-year-old Dominican who was in diapers during the peak years of Pedro Martinez’s career looks for all the world like the second coming of his idol, a man he reveres so much that, while he wears 73 on his back, he has 45 tattooed on his neck. Friday’s outing, his postseason debut, was further proof that his future could be as bright as Martinez’s once was.

Miami’s future now includes a trip to the Texas bubble and a Division Series matchup with Atlanta, the division rival that also made their way this postseason through a punchless NL Central squad. Once more, the Marlins will be underdogs in that one, but that’s been the case all season, and each time this collection of kids and veterans has kept chugging along well past what anyone expected. This is a roster ultimately greater than the sum of its parts, kept aloft by unlikely heroes like Joyce or Garrett Cooper, whose solo homer off Yu Darvish in the seventh broke the scoreless tie and put Miami ahead for good. Cooper is 29 and on his third franchise; drafted by Milwaukee in 2013, he was traded four years later to the Yankees for a reliever who appeared in two games for the Brewers before being waived, then was shipped to Miami six months after that. A projected bench bat, he instead became one of the team’s most productive hitters. That’s something that’s played out up and down the lineup with the likes of Jesús Aguilar and Corey Dickerson and Jon Berti, all players scavenged from around the league who are now part of a playoff core.

On the other side of the Little South Florida Engine That Could is the Cubs, whose postseason lives since 2016, to crib from Thomas Hobbes, have been nasty, brutish, and short. That championship was supposed to be the start of a dynasty; instead, Friday’s anemic loss had the feel of a window slamming shut on the end of this particular roster’s run. Baez and Bryant were awful all season, and it’s likely that the latter will be shopped heavily this winter as he has only one year left before free agency. Schwarber doesn’t look like the impact bat the North Side envisioned after his World Series heroics. Rizzo and Heyward are both on the wrong side of 30; so are Darvish and Kyle Hendricks, and while both were excellent this season and series, there’s not much pitching behind them. Yet another winter will come in Chicago full of questions with not many immediate or easy answers as to how to fix a team that routinely plays well below its talent level.

That’s to take nothing away from the Marlins. The concern a number of fans probably had going into MLB’s new and expanded postseason was whether this best-of-three opening round was going to lead to unfair chaos — such as lesser teams stealing games from better squads. That’s not what happened here. Forget the seeding: The team moving on from this series is undeniably the one that deserved to.





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arpollio
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arpollio

The east division was the best division in baseball.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Okay, but the NL West had probably the two best teams in baseball, even though the AL/NL East combined was probably stronger top-to-bottom.

Nathan
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Nathan

No way the Padres are better than the Rays, Athletics or Yankees. Dodgers are the best team in baseball though.

mikejunt
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mikejunt

fwiw if you compare the win LCS and win WS odds for each team in the playoff odds, the Dodgers, Braves, and Padres are -all- favored vs the AL field of teams and win more than half the time they reach the WS.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I dispute this assertion–the Padres are the real deal. When you have a Top 5 lineup, Top 5 defense, and Top 10 pitching staff in MLB you’ve got a loaded team. Nobody else except the Dodgers can make this assertion, and it’s why the Padres have dramatically outscored their opponents this year.

I’m just as skeptical as anyone that Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers and Jurickson Profar are going to mash like this next year given how inconsistent they have been but they’ve all been excellent. The Rays and Yankees (post-injuries) and A’s (pre-Chapman injury) are all contenders for the next best team, but none of them are as well-rounded as this team is.

arpollio
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arpollio

It’s hard to say. Personally due to the independent nature of the leagues and the bi-model nature of the western league i think there is definitely an argument that the yankees, braves, and rays are all better than the Dodgers.

At the same time though the distance between the dodgers (and to a lesser extent the padres) from the rest of the western league could suggest that they are the superior teams. For me its really difficult to say anything about individual teams with three discrete leagues and a bunch of 3 game series.

Jason B
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Jason B

It is tough to compare divisions this year given the very unbalanced schedule and short(er) sample than usual. That said I don’t think there’s any way the Braves with this current mess of a pitching staff could reasonably be considered better than the Dodgers.