Three Cuts: Fernandez dazzles again as Marlins blank Braves
The Miami Marlins’ added on to their impressive home success this season in handing the Atlanta Braves their most lopsided loss of the season on Tuesday night, a 9-0 blowout win behind another superb outing from young ace Jose Fernandez. Here are three observations from the one-sided affair:
Handing Fernandez an eight-run lead should be a violation of some sort of MLB bylaw. It’s simply unfair, especially when it comes at the expense of an Atlanta lineup that still cannot tweak its way into figuring out the 21-year-old superstar’s dominant stuff.
In four career starts against Atlanta, he’s looked like the best pitcher in baseball.
Just one week after dazzling the Braves’ lineup in arguably his young career’s best performance — a 14-strikeout, eight-inning gem in which he did not allow a single run, out-dueling Braves starter Alex Wood for the 1-0 win in what turned out to be an historic night — Fernandez was at it again on his home turf, blanking the NL East-leading Braves over eight innings of work. He allowed just two hits and two walks on the night, all while striking out eight batters and getting through 24 outs in less than 100 pitches.
After his previous gem, Braves third baseman Chris Johnson and a few of his teammates marveled at Fernandez’s top-of-the-line stuff (Johnson called him the best pitcher he’s ever faced) and based on the results to date, there’s not a single active pitcher the Braves would rather avoid than the Marlins ace.
"He’s good every time out," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez overhauled his lineup in preparation for Fernandez this time around, utilizing his bench to plug in more left-handed bats — Fernandez entered the game holding righty bats to .165/.210/.253 with 17 extra-base hits in 380 career plate appearances — in an effort to solve the riddle. It didn’t work. Lefty bench bats Ramiro Pena, Ryan Doumit and Jordan Schafer (Pena and Doumit are switch-hitters) combined to go just 1 for 9 against Fernandez — and the final score pretty much sums up the lineup’s overall effectiveness.
After his latest performance, there’s an argument to be made that the Marlins boast the most dominant pitcher in baseball. Fernandez is now 4-1 with a 1.59 ERA and, remarkably, an even lower fielding-independent pitching rating (1.57). He’s pretty much striking out 12 batters for every walk he issues and some of the best hitters in baseball are walking back toward the opposing dugout in disarray. (Case in point: two of the hottest hitters in baseball, Freddie Freeman and Justin Upton, are a combined 0 for 9 with six strikeouts against Fernandez this season; Gonzalez did not even plug the right-handed Upton into the lineup on Tuesday night.)
The scarier thought: he’s been even better against Atlanta.
In four career starts against the Braves, a team which boasts one of the best records in baseball since his major league debut in 2013, Fernandez has allowed just three runs in 29 innings pitched. That’s good for a 0.93 ERA. He’s struck out 35 batters over that stretch. He is the definition of a No. 1 starter, and Gonzalez’s bunch is getting the very best (or worst) of it.
"We gotta figure out a way to beat Fernandez," Gonzalez said. "Not everybody’s Cy Young, but you’ve still gotta beat Cy Young every once in a while."
The Braves starting rotation finally has a dud on its hands.
Through no help of his bullpen, which did him very few favors in limiting the Marlins’ damage, starter Alex Wood allowed seven earned runs on 10 hits through just five innings of work. It’s the first time a Braves starter has given up more than four runs in any start through the first 25 games of the season — veteran Ervin Santana allowed exactly four runs in a winning effort against Cincinnati in his most recent outing — and the rotation’s collective ERA "skyrocketed" from 1.57 to 1.90 … still the best mark in baseball by a good 42 points entering Tuesday’s action.
All the same, Wood’s outing comes in stark contrast to his previous duel with Fernandez, one in which he also posted a career-best outing with 11 Ks through eight innings, dropping his season mark to an undeserved 2-4 record. Even with this blip on the radar of what has been an excellent start to his career, Wood holds onto a 2.93 ERA and 3.14 FIP, including a K/BB ratio of about 8-to-1. He’s going to be just fine. His pitch location just didn’t make the trip down to Marlins Park this time around.
"I didn’t really have good breaking ball command. Obviously a lot of pitches were out over the plate," Wood said. " … Safe to say, there were a whole lot of mistakes from me tonight."
Until the wheels came loose in the third frame, when he allowed three runs on the board, and then when they officially flew off in the sixth, Gonzalez was impressed with his young lefty’s performance. He was even bracing for yet another back-and-forth pitching slugfest.
"He matched him pitch for pitch," Gonzalez said. "I thought it was going to be one of those — another one-run game, another tough game. I think if you look back, and I’m sure we’ll sit back and look at the film some more, there were a lot of balls over the plate. And that’s uncharacteristic of Woody. I’ll chalk it up to one of those starts. After three or four really, really good ones, he just happened to leave some balls over the plate."
Wood may have deserved the loss on this night, but the Braves’ offense has been embarrassingly unsupportive of its 23-year-old arm.
Atlanta, which has been shut out five times this season, has not scored a single run in each of Wood’s past three starts.
Wood entered the game claiming some of the worst run support in baseball, getting just two runs per start from his offense, tied for the majors’ second-worst rate with Jon Lester (Red Sox), Johnny Cueto (Reds) and Jeff Samardzija (Cubs). That’s a four-headed monster of an unsupported group, and after yet another fruitless effort with Wood on the mound, it looks like he’ll move into sole possession of "second place" on the unfortunate list.
The last time these two teams met, the Marlins star right fielder Giancarlo Stanton wowed Wood by reaching down for a changeup out of the zone and lacing it down the line for a double. The hit did not lead to a run, but it sure made an impression. In the clubhouse after the game, Wood still couldn’t believe the power-hitting righty put that much bat on the pitch.
He made an even louder impression on Tuesday night — as Gonzalez described it: "Opposite field. Four hundred feet." — but the Braves pitcher understood how he did it this time around. Location, location, location. Stanton belted his eight home run of the year in the third inning to lift the Marlins offense to, considering Jose Fernandez’s dominance, an insurmountable three-run lead.
"It was a hanging breaking ball. Tried to go back-door breaking ball on him and just left it out over the plate. A guy that strong, I think even if he hits it off the end of the bat he’s gonna get it in the air," Wood said. "You make a mistake like that, he’s probably gonna put it out of the ballpark."
Stanton has been the main cog in the Marlins’ lineup for the past couple of seasons, and that will not change as long as he’s on the roster. But with the offseason additions of guys like Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Casey McGhee and Garrett Jones (not to mention the development of leadoff speedster Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna), Miami is much improved in the offensive department.
Even taking away the nine-run explosion against Wood & Co., the Marlins ranked 13th in weighted runs created and 11th in runs scored. It’s hard to imagine them not inching into the top-10 in scoring following their latest performance, and when that’s combined with a starting rotation that ranks among the league’s best (2.4 rotation WAR entering this Braves series, 10th-best in the majors), nobody is going to want to play Miami.
Not now. Not in June. Not in September.
The fact that the Marlins hold down the NL East’s fifth place spot seems to be an anomale, a product of an inordinate lack of success on the road. If they can even play .400 ball on the road (as opposed to .167 ball), they are going to play a factor throughout the 2014 season.