In the past couple of weeks since the All-Star break, the Florida Marlins have played their best baseball on the season, having yet to lose a series.
The team won two of three games against their division rivals the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals, took three of four from the then wild card-leading Colorado Rockies, and split the recent four-game series in San Francisco against the Giants.
This has propelled the Marlins back into the wild card conversation, but there remains a tough road ahead for the Marlins to overcome, which will be a decisive factor in whether they are true contenders or pretenders on a hot streak.
When looking at the All-Star break, one could easily say that it was the calm before the storm. Everything was fine as players took their midseason vacations and relaxed while getting re-energized for the second half. As soon as the season restarted, the talk of trades began, and teams began critical stretches.
For the Marlins, it's as though they have entered the storm at sea (i.e. The Perfect Storm). They are riding rough waves while losing a few passengers overboard in the way of Chris Coghlan's freak knee injury and the trade of Jorge Cantu to the Rangers. Still, they have hope everything will be all right and that they continue their hot baseball play.
The Marlins face the division-leading San Diego Padres, who have the highest run differential in the National League and just acquired Miguel Tejada, who returns to the National League. Let's not forget they also are owners of the best record in the NL at 60-40 entering play on Friday. The last time these two teams faced off, the Padres swept the Marlins in South Florida.
Home Sweet Home?
After their West Coast road trip, their rough road continues at home with a series against the Philadelphia Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals. The Marlins are even against both (4-4 versus Philadelphia and 1-1 against St. Louis). Philadelphia has also turned up the heat post All-Star break; ditto for St. Louis.
Since the Marlins faced off against both, Philadelphia gained an ace in Roy Oswalt and St. Louis is on the cusp of the NL Central lead.
The only good thing going for the Marlins here is that both the Cardinals (22-30) and Phillies (22-28) have poor road records. But the Marlins are scheduled to face two aces from each team in both series with Philadelphia slated to have the Roy Boys, Halladay and Oswalt, and St. Louis having Cy Young candidates Adam Wainwright and Jaime Garcia.
Three-Headed Road Monsters
Beyond those two series, August offers a difficult trio of three-game road series, starting in Cincinnati (Aug. 13-15) and continuing in New York (Aug. 24-26) and Atlanta (Aug. 27-29). This won't be an easy stretch for the Marlins' hopes, but it will without a doubt be a deciding one if they can come out alive and enter September in the conversation.
On the bright side, the Marlins do get their fair share of easy teams in the way of a four-game road series in Pittsburgh, a three-game road series in Washington, and a three-game home series against the Houston Astros.
If the Marlins win seven of nine here, that's staying on the right track, especially since the Astros traded their ace in Oswalt and the Nationals lost Stephen Strasburg to the DL and also traded All-Star closer Matt Capps to the Twins.
The Marlins must win the neighborhood of 20 games in the month of August to keep up the pace. Any less and the Marlins will certainly be down and out. The Fish do have a reputation for staying the race in September, as they have done for the past couple of years, and they'll have to a achieve a successful August for there to be hope that they are one of the remaining eight teams come October.
The Bottom Line
The only way they are successful is if they can take advantage of their opponents' weaknesses and patch up their own. The bullpen must step up and improve. If you ask any Marlins fan, the seventh hasn't been lucky this season, everyone's heart rate isn't so great in inning No. 8, and the ninth can often be a breeze but also a disaster waiting to happen.
The Marlins must also hope that their rookie trio of Gaby Sanchez, Michael Stanton, and recently called up prospect Logan Morrison can continue their clutch hitting.
Sanchez has one of the best batting averages in the NL in close and late situations. LoMo (as they call Morrison) and Stanton are talented hitters—Stanton with the power, Morrison with his plate discipline. The duo will need to show it in this deciding month.
As far as the future goes, the Marlins are in the driver's seat, but for the present they are only just stepping up the plate. Like I've said, the month of August will certainly be a crucial test to the rookies, veterans, and even Edwin Rodriguez as to whether they are legit or not up to the challenge.
They'll need Josh Johnson to continue his Cy Young-like season, Anibal Sanchez to pitch gems like he has done beyond his shutout of the Giants, and Ricky Nolasco to be consistent down the stretch so that this team can stay afloat and become last year's Colorado Rockies this season.
I see something special in this team, not because they are my home team, but because they have the talent to do it. They just have to harness it.