MIAMI — With Jose Fernandez on the mound, Dee Gordon returning from suspension, Ichiro Suzuki continuing to chase 3,000 hits and two teams battling for wild-card playoff spots, there will be no shortage of story lines on Thursday when the Miami Marlins play host to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Fernandez is nearly unbeatable at Marlins Park. The way he has pitched at home — 26-1 with a 1.47 ERA — he can pretty much throw his glove on this mound and win.
Overall, he is 12-4 with a 2.54 ERA. The 12 wins match a career high for the two-time All-Star. And don't sleep on Fernandez offensively, either. He has six RBIs this season.
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The Cardinals will counter with Michael Wacha (5-7, 4.37 ERA), who was a bit shaky in his most recent start, allowing 10 hits but just two runs. Overall, though, Wacha has held opponents to three or fewer runs in eight straight starts.
Wacha vs. Fernandez should be a good matchup. Wacha, the 19th overall pick in the 2012 draft, is only 25, but he is already an All-Star (2015) and a National League Championship Series MVP (2013).
In that same year when Wacha was MVP, Fernandez was the NL Rookie of the Year. Fernandez is only 23 years old, but he already ranks as one of the game's best.
As for Gordon, he is due back after an 80-game ban for using performance-enhancing suspension.
His return should inject some life in a lineup that earlier this week went 24 innings without scoring before breaking out on Wednesday with an 11-0 win over the Philadelphia Phillies.
Gordon led the NL in steals and batting average last year, and he will also be an upgrade defensively at second base.
Suzuki, who is three hits from 3,000, is a reserve outfielder, and it is unknown when he will get his next start. His most recent start came Tuesday, when he went 1-for-5.
“We'll play what we think is our best lineup and move forward,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “It's a little uncomfortable when you get that close with 'Ich' because you don't want to put him out there just to (get to 3,000).
“We have been playing in the concept of the team the whole year. You'd like 'Ich' to get (No. 3,000) at home, but I don't want to force it.
“If it's a good matchup or if a guy needs a day off and it's a good thing for our team, we'll do it.”
As for the pennant race, the Marlins (55-46) lead the Cardinals (54-47) by one game and the New York Mets (53-47) by 1 1/2 games for the second wild-card spot.
The Cardinals scored twice in the ninth inning off Mets closer Jeurys Familia on Wednesday night, rallying to win 5-4.
St. Louis won two of three in the important series, and the Cardinals also earned the distinction of ending Familia's streak of 52 consecutive saves.
So there you have it — a confident Cardinals team travels on little rest to visit a confident Marlins team with a lot on the line in a hot playoff race.
And, oh yes, Fernandez takes on Wacha, Gordon returns from suspension and Suzuki chases 3,000.