NEW YORK — Built around pitching and heavily reliant on winning tight games, the Marlins present a much different matchup for the 90-win Phillies in the Best-of-3 wild-card round than the Diamondbacks would have.
While Arizona is a more offense-oriented team, the D-backs would probably have been the better draw for the Phillies since they'd have used an opener or struggling rookie Brandon Pfaadt in Game 1, with top two starters Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly not on regular rest until Games 2 and 3.
Miami will start left-hander Jesus Luzardo in Game 1 against the Phillies, with fellow southpaw Braxton Garrett likely to start Game 2. The Marlins chose not to start Garrett on the final day of the regular season to preserve him for the opening round of the playoffs.
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The Marlins went 4-0 against the Phillies this season in games started by Luzardo and Garrett, though they had a 4.43 ERA and three of the four starts were just OK.
"They're a good club, they won the season series on us," manager Rob Thomson said after the Phillies ended their regular season with a 9-1 win. "They match up well with us. We've got a lot of prep to do. They can beat you in a lot of different ways. They've got speed, they have great pitching and they've got a couple of guys with thump in their lineup."
Miami is also left-handed-heavy in the bullpen. Its top four relievers in appearances are all lefties: closer Tanner Scott, former closer A.J. Puk, Steven Okert and Andrew Nardi. That quartet held left-handed hitters to a .198 batting average with 131 strikeouts and 32 walks this season.
"Those are their key guys," Thomson said. "The lefties in the Miami 'pen are pretty good."
The Marlins were by far MLB's best team in one-run games this season at 33-13. The ability to win one-run games is rarely viewed as a sustainable skill and the Fish themselves are an example as they had the third-worst record in the majors in one-run games a year ago. Still, Miami has plenty of recent experience eking out wins and will be confident if the game is close late.
The Marlins will also be confident facing the Phillies, period. The Phils are 40-42 against them since 2019 and have lost the season series four of the last five years. In the same way the Phillies aren't intimidated by the Braves, the Marlins aren't intimidated by the Phils.
The playoffs are a different animal, though, particularly in Philadelphia. Last year, it was referred to as four hours of hell. With the pitch clock this year, it'll be closer to three.
A big question mark is the status of 2023 NL batting champ Luis Arraez, who had just one plate appearance in the Marlins' final seven games, most of which were must-wins. Arraez, a .354 hitter, is dealing with an ankle injury.
Drawing Miami rather than Arizona likely changes the make-up of the Phillies' wild-card series roster, which must be submitted by noon Tuesday. Facing a team with so many left-handed pitchers makes right-handed Weston Wilson a likelier bet to crack the roster. If Wilson does indeed make it, left-handed-hitting Jake Cave could be the odd man out.
Thomson said Sunday that against Miami, run prevention would be a priority, an indication that Cristian Pache could start in left field vs. Luzardo and Garrett. Brandon Marsh has played sporadically against lefties in the second half and his numbers against same-handed pitching have tailed off. Thomson said prior to the regular-season finale that Marsh just hasn't been seeing the ball well lately against lefties. Whether it's Pache or Wilson starting in left field, they would probably be pulled for Marsh as soon as the left-handed starter is out.
"He's been fine, especially against left-handed pitching," Thomson said of Pache, who went 3-for-33 in September. "I've liked his swings. He's running around the outfield great. If you end up playing Miami and facing those left-handed starters, they're pretty good, too. You want to eliminate giving up runs as much as you can, so he becomes maybe a factor."
The Phils could carry all three of Wilson, Cave and Pache along with backup catcher Garett Stubbs and utilityman Edmundo Sosa if they choose to roster 14 position players rather than the 13 teams are limited to in the regular season.
Had the Phillies faced the Diamondbacks, the decisions probably would have been more straightforward. Arizona had only three left-handers on its season-ending roster, one of whom has appeared in only 10 big-league games.
If the Phillies carry 13 pitchers, these look like the locks: Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola, Ranger Suarez, Taijuan Walker, Craig Kimbrel, Jose Alvarado, Seranthony Dominguez, Gregory Soto, Matt Strahm, Jeff Hoffman, Orion Kerkering, Cristopher Sanchez and Michael Lorenzen. If they carry one fewer pitcher, it might be Lorenzen. Walker isn't a great fit for a short series but could serve a purpose in an extra-inning game. In the playoffs, extra innings are played without the automatic runner at second base so there's a higher chance of a marathon game.
It's also Year 1 of a four-year, $72 million contract for Walker, so unless there's another pitcher they'd legitimately rather use in a three-game series instead of Walker, there's little reason to make that decision as an organization. It's not as if the next men up — Yunior Marte, Luis Ortiz or Andrew Bellatti — have been lights out or would serve a greater purpose.
Thomson was most concerned over these last five games with keeping everyone healthy. Everyone did, and the team still reached 90 wins with Thomson managing conservatively. For a second straight season, the Phillies overcame a slow start to make the playoffs. They were 21-29 before finishing with 87 wins in 2022. They were 25-32 before finishing with 90 wins in 2023.
"I'm really proud of our club, of our coaches," Thomson said. "We started off very slow. There were a lot of questions about our club, but they just kept battling and finally we got it going, got hot and stayed hot, for the most part. They never lost faith."