Conley's step forward turns page on Marlins' tough day
After All-Star Gordon was suspended, young lefty has best game of his career
By Richard Justice
Now that's how you change a narrative. You show off another one of your gifted young pitchers. You watch that young pitcher flirt with history. And then you put a finishing touch on a game that will have fans debating how the thing went down at the end.
In this way, the Miami Marlins turned the page -- at least for a day -- on Thursday's stunning news that All-Star second baseman Dee Gordon had been slapped with an 80-game suspension for performance enhancing substances.
The Marlins defeated the Brewers, 6-3, Friday night at Miller Park with a story line that included 25-year-old left-hander Adam Conley throwing 7 2/3 no-hit innings.
Marlins manager Don Mattingly used the word "resilient" over and over Friday afternoon when discussing his team. That's the wonderful thing about having so many young guys. They're fired up just to be in the big leagues. They're resilient, too.
This was a game the Marlins needed, and badly. They'd flown all night from Los Angeles, and it was easy to assume the bad news might linger.
And then something remarkable happened. Conley went out and pitched the best game of his young career, the kind the Marlins envision him having a lot in the years ahead.
In his 16th big league start, he showed off a fastball that touched 96 mph, a power slider and enough off-speed pitches to keep the Brewers off balance the entire evening. But he'd thrown 100 pitches only one other time in his Major League career and missed a chunk of the 2014 season with an injury.
While this was a game every young pitcher dreams of, Mattingly made the kind of decision that gutsy, smart and confident managers make. Moments after Conley had thrown his 116th pitch while allowing zero hits over 7 2/3 innings, Mattingly went and got his pitcher.
"There was a part of me [that wanted to stay in]," Conley said. "I don't like ever coming out of a game. But considering where I was at in the game, I knew what was going on. I appreciate [that] they don't want me to throw 150 pitches or whatever to try to get a no-hitter."
As fans booed the decision, Conley's teammates gathered around him on the mound to offer their congratulations. In the end, it wasn't a difficult call. OK, it surely was difficult. But it was the right one.
In the end, the risk-reward of overtaxing a young pitcher doesn't add up. Mattingly was focused, rightly, on a much larger picture both for Conley and the franchise.
"This kid's got a chance to be really special, we believe," Mattingly said of Conley. "There's no way at this point in the season we're going to let him go to 130. We've got a long season and we feel we have a chance to go somewhere, and he's going to have to be a part of that. We've got to protect him."
Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy broke up the no-hitter with a one-out single off reliever Jose Urena in the bottom of the ninth, and Milwaukee went on to score three runs.
This was the Marlins' sixth straight victory and got them to .500 at 11-11. In the last three games, they've run out three twenty-something starters -- Jose Fernandez, Justin Nicolino and Conley.
All of them throw hard and have the potential to make it an interesting baseball summer in South Florida. At 25, Conley is the oldest of the group.
He'd flown to Milwaukee a day ahead of his teammates to get a full night of sleep before the start. Perhaps it was an advantage that he wasn't at Dodger Stadium when Gordon told his teammates of his positive test.
Conley began the game with a 5.12 ERA after four starts, but that number doesn't tell the whole story. In his second start, he threw six shutout innings in a no-decision against the Mets at Citi Field.
Six days after that, he took a shutout into the seventh inning against Stephen Strasburg and the Nationals. Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos tagged him for back-to-back homers in the seventh, and the game unraveled after he departed.
In fact, Mattingly surely had that Washington game somewhere in his mind when he went and got his young left-hander. Conley was still throwing 91-93 mph in the eighth, but there was no point in an insanely high pitch count.
He was in big trouble only once, that in the fourth inning when the Brewers had the bases loaded and none out. Conley struck out Lucroy on a 94-mph heater, then got Chris Carter to pound a changeup into the ground for an inning-ending double play.
In the sixth, Brewers second baseman Hernan Perez sent Ichiro Suzuki near the wall in right field to grab the hardest hit ball off Conley.
He had a 2.62 ERA in his final six starts of 2015, and Mattingly called him "a man on a mission" when he arrived at Spring Training to show the Marlins once and for all that he belonged in the big leagues.
He took another huge step in that direction on Friday. He did the rest of his teammates a big favor as well.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.