‘We’re still here’: How the Marlins overcame a COVID-19 outbreak and became playoff winners

MLB

If the outcome between the Chicago Cubs and Miami Marlins in their first-round Wild Card Series surprised you, then you haven’t been paying attention to either team. The Cubs made a predictably early exit from the postseason, due to a continued lack of offense, while the Marlins did what they always do when this franchise makes it to October: win.

Miami has yet to lose a postseason series in franchise history, this time beating the Cubs in two straight games behind magnificent pitching. But this wasn’t about the Marlins’ history; this was about a team that came to fight.

“I think the first game of the year [in Philadelphia], I think that lit a fire under our ass,” Miami’s Game 2 hero, Garrett Cooper, said Friday after the sweep. “One of their reporters labeled us as a bottom feeder from the first game on. You take that to heart. You go out there and you try to stick it to everybody because whoever it is, the media, anybody, the national media, you don’t get the respect that we think we deserve here.”

Pre-pandemic, the odds of the Marlins winning the World Series were 1,000-1. After the shutdown ended, they were a much better bet at 300-1. Respect wasn’t going to come easy. In fact, the Marlins more than earned it the hard way.

An early-season COVID-19 outbreak got the Marlins down but didn’t knock them out. Accused of breaking health protocols, they pushed back on the narrative, which was never proved. They bused their sick players home from Philadelphia while the rest of the team trudged on. Doubleheaders, false positives and a 29-9 thrashing at the hands of the Atlanta Braves, their next postseason opponent, didn’t crush their spirit. It strengthened it.

“We had a core group that stayed together there,” Miami manager Don Mattingly said. “Even when we lost a bunch of guys, we knew we had some guys coming in and some guys we didn’t know. … It was a good group of guys with the leadership there; even the guys on COVID, they stayed talking about what they believed in and what they wanted to do.”

Leadership played a key role in the Marlins’ success, with shortstop Miguel Rojas getting top billing. His daily texts to his teammates were in part inspiring and informative. With schedule changes galore, the team needed the kind of cohesiveness Rojas brought them. So when Game 2 of the Wild Card Series was postponed due to rain — which never actually fell in Chicago on Thursday — dealing with another night sequestered in a hotel was old hat for the Marlins.

“It was one thing after another this year,” Cooper said Friday before the game. “It was another thing to get over. You take each day as it is. … Our veterans were great for us.”

The Marlins weren’t the only team preaching togetherness throughout the pandemic. The Cubs got high marks for not having a single player all season test positive for the virus. But after leading the National League Central from start to finish, the same uneasy feeling that has hung over them the past couple of Septembers returned. A group of hitters who won a World Series in 2016 stopped hitting once again.

“They’re too much the same,” one Marlin stated. “The right-handers are the same, and the left-handers are all the same.”

It’s an issue that has plagued the Cubs for years. Some seasons, they don’t hit fastballs. Some years, they swing and miss on spin. In 2020, they did both.

“I don’t have much of an answer to that,” Chicago third baseman Kris Bryant said of the team’s struggles. “I guess [it’s] this game being extremely tough. Toughest game, sport in the world, no doubt about it. I’ll sit here and debate anybody, football, basketball, golf, whatever. I’ve played all of them; baseball is an extremely tough sport.”

It looked a lot easier for the Cubs during their offensive heyday from 2015 to 2017. But teams have figured them out. In some ways, it’s a testament to their leadership and pitching infrastructure that they keep competing year after year despite having the same problems on offense. Even though the Cubs’ brass made efforts to shake things up in the past, they’ll be doubling their efforts this time around. Even so, that doesn’t mean they’ll be able to retool in time to take full advantage of prime pitching efforts like the ones they got from Kyle Hendricks and Yu Darvish this season. The path to fix the offense isn’t obvious.

“I have no clue, I really don’t,” Bryant said when asked about the team’s future. “Your guys’ guess is as good as mine.”

It’s more than an educated one that Bryant will soon have a new address. But it’s unclear exactly when that might happen, as he’ll be a free agent after next season. Just as it’s unclear if Anthony Rizzo will be a Cub much longer or if Javier Baez will get his contract extension after a forgettable season and playoffs. Are you seeing a trend here? For a division winner, there is much more uncertainty than certainty.

“That’s a core group that means a lot to me, personally,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “That’s a special group.”

On the field, that was a special group. But it feels ordinary now, past its collective prime and perhaps waiting for change to take place.

“The feeling of losing just sucks,” Rizzo stated. “We make this sacrifice, fully committed to winning and going deep into the playoffs; but when you come up short-handed, it’s a bad feeling. You’ve got guys in this clubhouse you’ll never be teammates with again. You have friends in this clubhouse who you’ll see from afar. The end of the year is never easy.”

In any playoff series (except the World Series), the end for one team means the continuation for another. Like all teams, the Cubs sacrificed to get through this season amid the pandemic. But many Marlins actually had the virus, beat it and continued on to the playoffs. And to a first-round series win. Hollywood might be calling if they keep this act up.

The two games this week can be summed up in the final three outs: Marlins closer Brandon Kintzler — a former Cub — struck out the side; something he hadn’t done in seven years.

The Cubs played accommodating hosts for the upstart Marlins, who claim they aren’t done yet.

“There was a lot of emotions, everything leading up to that,” Kintzler said. “That out, that inning, this game, this year. Obviously, we’re not done, but there’s so many emotions. We’ve been screwed around all year with scheduling and fake rain delays and fake postponements, and it’s just been a freaking whirlwind. Everyone tried to screw with us, and to get the last out right there is just like, ‘We’re still here; you can’t get rid of us!'”

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