Fish Out of Water, Then Back In: Florida Marlins Early Mid Season Report

Angel MelendezCorrespondent IJune 26, 2009

WASHINGTON - APRIL 19:  Cody Ross #12 of the Florida Marlins is congratulated by Hanley Ramirez #2 after hitting a home run in the eighth inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on April 19, 2009 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

The A.L. East has been good to the Marlins.

Florida has gone 10-5 overall in interleague play this season with three more games in Tampa Bay this weekend. In the past two weeks, they’ve swept Toronto and Baltimore, won the series against New York and managed to steal one from Boston.

It feels like April all over again as the Marlins are back in contention for the division, only one game back from division leaders Philadelphia. We’re nearly at the midpoint of the season and the fish are going strong into the All Star break despite being pummeled after an 11-1 start.

What’s the reason for the resurgence? Let’s take a look at the numbers. First, an examination of their records by month. The Marlins up and down season has gone like this so far: 14-8 in April, 9-20 in May, 15-8 in June.

April was a magical and stunning start; May was a hemorrhaging that nothing short of a mighty suture on an amputated BA (.242) and a severed ERA (4.87) could fix.

It was during May that I grew increasingly afraid that Nationals manager Manny Acta had kidnapped the entire coaching staff and then grown a goatee in order to impersonate Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez. It was either that or the Marlins plain forgot how to play baseball.

All joking aside, June’s up swing can be attributed to several players getting hot at the plate.

Dan Uggla suddenly remembered how to hit a home run (leads the team with 15), Jorge Cantu has been as consistent as any first baseman in all of baseball both offensively and defensively, Cody Ross' defense in the outfield makes the highlight reels nightly, and Hanley Ramirez is the leading vote-getter at SS for the NL All-Stars.

There is an RBI race brewing between these four sluggers. Amazingly, each has at least 45 RBI’s to this point. Ramirez currently has the lead. Hopefully they keep pushing each other.

Speaking of which, Ramirez is the catalyst for the Marlins success offensively. He’s batting .335 with 11 HRs, 47 RBIs, and 11 stolen bases. Perhaps this isn’t astounding news to fans in the know.

Hanley’s a stud. He’s tied with Cody Ross for grand slams, each have three a piece, and has the highest on base percentage on the team (.404). The man can hit a ball and score, fine, but this year, Hanley’s giving the Marlins even more: defense.

One of my private criticisms of Hanley over the years has been his lackluster in fielding. This season I’ve had to shut my trap (he’s 15th amongst SS in FPCT with .973 average). There is hardly a ball coming his way that he can’t handle.

The Marlins infield has been turning double plays like they haven’t since the 2003 championship team. Again, the catalyst here is Ramirez’s improved play.

But all is not well in the infield. Emilio “Bone-fast-io” Bonifacio makes me cheer and groan from inning to inning. He’s the team leader with 13 steals and probably one of the fastest men in the game…ugh but he also leads the majors in errors amongst third basemen with 13.

And if it strikes anyone odd that he has the same number of errors as steals, consider this: in Wednesday night’s game, Bonifacio’s throwing error in the sixth allowed two unearned runs for Baltimore. That’s bad.

Then in the seventh, he made up for it. He hit a single, stole second and scored from second when Orioles catcher Matt Wieters' throw went into right center field and outfielder Felix Pie lazily tossed the ball back into play.

Bonifacio had the base running instincts of a veteran and the speed of a cheetah. That’s brilliant. This is what the Marlins season has been like.

For another good example of the beauty of ugly Marlins wins we stay in the Orioles series. I started writing this article on Tuesday night during the first game, after the Florida Marlins bullpen blew a 6-3 lead.

I had to stop myself though because I was frustrated and wanted to do nothing more than rant and rave about Florida’s terrible bullpen blah, blah, blah. I reminded myself of what a buddy of mine always says about how to approach each baseball season: It’s not a race, it’s a marathon.

Nonetheless, this was a game they had to win, I fumed through clenched teeth.

And win they did, in dramatic fashion to boot. In the bottom of the 12th, Cantu singled Bonifacio home to salvage the win and snap Baltimore’s five game winning streak. It was just another day at Landshark Stadium.

Once again, the problem wasn’t the starting pitching which was strong, Andrew Miller threw a one hitter through seven, it was the bullpen which has been another microcosm of the season; incredible half the time, dreadful the other half.

Part of the inconsistency of the Marlins bullpen can be attributed to the lack of a true closer. Matt Lindstrom has been the anointed closer up to this point but it’s been a very hit or miss experiment through 74 games.

And believe me when I say experiment.

Manager Fredi Gonzalez has literally been "trying" Lindstrom out to see if he’s the answer at the closer position. Again, sometimes it works but other times the experiment blows up in Florida’s face.

The man has amazing stuff, routinely throwing in the high 90s, occasionally topping out at 101. Unfortunately, Lindstrom has another high number: an ERA of 6.52 through 29 innings pitched. It is absolutely the highest ERA amongst all closers with at least 14 saves.

As of Thursday though, Marlins fans will get a break from Lindstrom (who by the way, sweats uncontrollably and makes me sweat as well every time he’s on the mound). He’s been put on the 15-day DL and will be out for at least six weeks with a sprained right elbow.

The derby for the Marlins next closer begins with several relievers getting a shot at the job. Once Leo Nunez returns from a strained ankle, he’s high on Fredi’s list to claim the spot.

In the running are Brian Sanches, Renyel Pinto, and Dan Meyer. The Marlins best reliever for most of the season Kiko Calero is still on the DL which is shame because I believe he’d be the most reliable option at this point.

This is a very young group of pitchers. The average age is an even 26 years old. There isn’t any starter that could truly be called a "veteran" although Josh Johnson is pitching like a ten time All Star. He’s currently sitting on a 2.66 ERA through 15 games amassing a 7-1 record thus far.

Johnson is a big reason the Marlins are back over .500 again since mid-May. Another impressive number to consider: he has 88 strikeouts; the league average is 27.

All in all, this is a team that can win but will go through rough patches like a kid learning to ride a bike. Trust me this metaphor is more truth and less hyperbole considering that Florida has the second youngest team after the Pittsburgh Pirates.

If papa Fredi can keep the boys from scraping their knees too often, the Marlins will be in that grand bike race this fall, the playoffs.


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