BROTHERS IN ARMS
Marlins pitchers Alcantara and Lopez are bringing under-the-radar excellence to Miami
By Jerry Crasnick
Miami Marlins catcher Jacob Stallings can tell which of the team’s top starters is pitching on a given day based on the pre-batting practice word count in the clubhouse.
Pablo Lopez, the team’s No. 2 starter, is an obsessive preparer, always on the prowl for some new insight on video or the scouting reports. If he finds a snippet of information that might give him an edge, he’ll run it past Stallings for feedback. Their dialogue continues throughout the game in the dugout.
Sandy Alcantara, the Marlins’ ace and resident Cy Young Award candidate, is more inclined to keep his thoughts to himself and conversation to a minimum. He’s friendly and approachable four out of every five days. But when it’s time to take the ball, he’s the sole inhabitant of Sandy Land.
“Sandy literally doesn't say five words to me on start day,’’ Stallings says.
If solitude enhances concentration, and concentration translates to performance, why change? Alcantara is 9-3 with a 1.82 ERA, third among MLB starters behind the Rays’ Shane McClanahan and the Dodgers’ Tony Gonsolin, and he ranks among the top five in WAR and several other categories. He’s doing justice to the nickname “Sandman,’’ which has long been associated with Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer in MLB history and the only unanimous selection to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“I feel every (hitter) in Major League Baseball right now would not want to face Sandy, and all the pitchers want to throw like Sandy,’’ Lopez says. “I think he deserves way more attention because of what he’s doing right now. It's just mesmerizing to watch. But at the same time, it could also be a good thing to fly under the radar.’’
Alcantara’s national profile is muted by his soft-spoken persona and the Marlins’ status as the 29th best home draw in the majors, but his dominance is undeniable for the hitters who have to cope with his poise, intensity and varied arsenal of pitches. He’s an every-fifth-day force and a lock to make his second career All-Star team.
And he keeps getting better, with a boost from his principal wing man. Alcantara and Lopez give the Marlins two organizational building blocks who raise each other’s games through contrasting styles and a shared appreciation for their craft.
It took some time for their professional paths to coalesce. Alcantara, 26, signed with the St. Louis Cardinals at age 17 and came to Miami as part of a four-player package for outfielder Marcell Ozuna in 2017. Lopez, also 26, began his career with Seattle at age 16 before coming to Miami in a trade for reliever David Phelps in ’17.
Alcantara grew up amid humble means in a family with 11 children in the Dominican Republic. At age 11, he left his hometown of Azua and moved three hours away to Santo Domingo to live with an older sister. The move was a boon to his baseball aspirations, but he dropped out of school in the eighth grade and spoke exclusively Spanish when he arrived in Florida to play in the Gulf Coast League in 2015.
Undaunted, Alcantara committed himself to taking classes and engaging with his English-speaking teammates in the minors. He made rapid progress and now sails through interviews in his second language without a translator.
“The first year, when I came here to the United States, I didn’t know any English,’’ Alcantara says. “I just knew how to say ‘hi’ to people. I would be scared to go to a restaurant, and I had to point to the food with my finger. Now I’m here and I know how to have a conversation with people, how to order my food, how to talk with my teammates and the media. It’s really important for me now that I’m living here in the United States.’’
With each dominant outing and his burgeoning reputation as a workhorse, Alcantara is starting to accommodate more interview requests in his schedule. In 2021, he joined Zack Wheeler, Walker Buehler and Adam Wainwright as one of four big-league starters to surpass 200 innings. This year, he reached 115 innings before another big-league starter cracked 100.
Alcantara averages 97.8 mph with his fastball (tied with Gerrit Cole for fastest heater in the majors) and a mind-boggling 91.8 mph with his changeup, but he’s more inclined to elicit weak contact than pile up whiffs. He has the 43rd best strikeout ratio among MLB starters. But he’s a model of pitch economy, with an MLB-best ratio of 14.16 pitches per inning. All those early-count groundouts pay dividends when he’s flirting with triple digits in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.
“I think if you asked him, he would rather have a complete game with five strikeouts than go six innings and have 10 strikeouts,’’ Stallings says. “It’s kind of his mentality, and it shows.’’
The Marlins rewarded Alcantara with a $56 million contract extension in December, and he laughs when asked who’ll pick up the tab on his planned dinner excursion with the team’s starters during the next break in the schedule. “If I gotta pay, I’ll pay for anybody,’’ he says, “because we are family.’’
While Alcantara tends to dominate the conversation, Lopez is building an impressive portfolio with a four-pitch repertoire and lots of resourcefulness. He has a 2.97 ERA and is limiting opponents to a .214 batting average through 16 starts. He carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning in his last outing Sunday against the Nationals.
“Sandy has this amazing talent where he can go to the mound with the attitude, ‘I’m better than everyone and I’m going to overpower you,’’’ Lopez says. “I, on the other side, have to be a little more tactical. I have to have a different approach because I don't have the stuff he has.’’
Lopez has a well-documented reputation as the clubhouse brainiac. His father, Danny, and mother, Agnedis, were both doctors in his native Venezuela, and he has memories of Agnedis poring over biopsy samples through a microscope when he was seven or eight. Education was everything in the Lopez household, and young Pablo learned to speak four languages by the time he was a teenager. His Italian gradually atrophied from lack of use, so now he’s down to English, Spanish and a passable Portuguese.
“Yeah, he's really smart,’’ Alcantara says. “We call him ‘Google,’ because if you have a question and you don't have the answer, you go to Lopey.’’’
The friends and teammates have supported each other through difficult times. Agnedis died in a car accident when Pablo was 11, and Danny suffered a fatal heart attack in 2020. When Lopez set a major-league record by striking out nine straight Braves to start a game on June 11, 2021 -- the one-year anniversary of his father’s passing -- he felt Danny’s spirit guiding him.
“I woke up that day very aware of the date,’’ Lopez says. “I needed some extra help to do what I did that day. I think that extra help came from him in a way.’’
Alcantara, similarly, found an inner strength while overcoming tragedy. His brother, Alexander (nicknamed “Lexi),’’ died in a motorcycle accident in 2017, and he lost his mother, Francisca, to lung cancer last July. He inscribed the message “RIP Mom & Lexi’’ on his glove so he could feel their presence with each trip to the mound.
When Alcantara returned from Francisca’s funeral last summer, Lopez was there with words of empathy and comfort.
“Even though my mom passed away 15 years ago, it’s something that never goes away,’’ Lopez says. “At least once a day, something reminds me of my mom. I can’t explain how.
“I knew the place that he was in, and the places he was going to. Sandy is always happy and he doesn’t say a lot of words sometimes. So I let him know, ‘I know you’re hurting. If you ever need someone to talk to, please feel free to talk to me.’’’
As the two pitchers navigate life in the majors, they continue to grow as teammates and professionals. One is stoic, the other gregarious. One introverted, the other chatty. But they complement each other in a way that makes the whole stronger than the sum of its parts. Individually, they’re formidable. Together, so much more.