Wild-card race gets fishy

Posted: Thursday, August 14, 2003

MIAMI The Florida Marlins have been behind all season.

They were way behind on May 22, when their record was 19-29. They were behind on July 4, trailing eight teams in the NL wild-card race. They were behind three times Tuesday night but rallied and beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in 13 innings.

And on Wednesday, the Marlins began the day with a lead. They were atop the NL wild-card standing for the first time this season, one-half game ahead of Philadelphia.

Playing catch-up, the Marlins have the best record in the major leagues since May 23. How will they fare as front-runners?

''We've been playing good baseball for a long time,'' first baseman Derrek Lee said. ''It's not a fluke. We're going to continue to play good baseball.''

This is all new to most of the Marlins. Infielders Lee, Luis Castillo, Alex Gonzalez and Mike Lowell, outfielder Juan Encarnacion, closer Braden Looper and starting pitchers Josh Beckett and Brad Penny have never played on a winning team.

Outfielder Juan Pierre has never been in a playoff race. Ace Dontrelle Willis and left fielder Miguel Cabrera are rookies.

The Florida player with the most big-game experience is catcher Ivan Rodriguez, whose Texas Rangers went 1-9 in three playoff series.

''The way we're playing right now, we can beat anybody,'' Rodriguez said.

They struggled to beat anybody early in the season, and they're trying to become the ninth team to make the playoffs after being 10 games below .500. The only team to do it since 1989 was the 2001 Oakland A's.

The Marlins were 16-22 when Jack McKeon replaced Jeff Torborg as manager on May 11. Tuesday's victory left them 49-32 under McKeon.

''It has been a great uphill climb, but it's too early to get excited about being half a game in front,'' McKeon said. ''There are a lot of clubs behind us interested in doing what we're doing winning.''

Five teams were within 3 1/2 games of the Marlins, including Arizona, Los Angeles and St. Louis, all accustomed to playoff races.

''It'd be nice to have a bunch of pros who have been around for a long time,'' McKeon said. ''But I don't think the inexperience factor is that big a deal. Look at the Anaheim Angels last year. They didn't have that many guys who had a world of playoff experience. They just happened to get hot at the right time.''

The only winning season in the Marlins' 11-year history came in 1997, when they won the World Series, and no holdovers remain from that team. Florida players acknowledge they don't know how their young club will react to the late-season pressure of chasing a playoff berth or being chased for one.

But so far they're thriving in the role of upstarts.

''We're just having fun,'' Lee said. ''The fun overrides the pressure. We're already watching the Phillies pitch by pitch to see what they do. I'm sure teams that are in the playoffs every year don't do that. But we're just enjoying it.

''We're not expected to be here. We're not the big-payroll team, and no one penciled us in for the wild card. So we're just going out and trying to surprise some people.''

With an 11-3 record, charismatic left-hander Willis has led the Marlins' surge to the front of the wild-card pack. He's had two rough outings since the All-Star break, but otherwise the rotation has been consistently strong.

And a solid bullpen was upgraded this week with the addition of veteran right-hander Chad Fox, who sees a rosy future for Florida.

''This team, with the young arms they have, is not too far from dominating the division,'' he said.

Dominating the division? Ending Atlanta's reign in the NL East? Maybe next year. Right now the Marlins will happily settle for a role in the wild-card race.

''It's not like we're the Yankees,'' Looper said. ''We're just having fun, man.''



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