Miami is swirling with excitement for perhaps the least expected reason.
No, it’s not because of South Beach, Brickell or other beautiful night life scenes in the city.
No, it’s not because of the Miami Heat, Dolphins or Hurricanes — the usual champion suspects of the city.
It’s actually the metaphorical punching bag known as the Miami Marlins for the reason this city is buzzing. The Miami Marlins are 63-63, 13.5 games behind the Washington Nationals for the NL East division lead. They’re 7-3 in their last 10 games, and own a 22-17 record since the All-Star break.
“We’re still a long ways from where we want to be, but you try to set little goals along the way that are achievable that kind of help propel you to the next one,” said closer Brad Ziegler to the Sun Sentinel’s Tim Healey. “It’s a good start. The next goal will be get above .500.”
For the first time since 2009, the Fish are on pace to finish second place in the division. Outfielder Giancarlo Stanton is having a bounce-back season in a huge way, leading the majors in home runs with 47. Outfielder Marcela Ozuna is having a break-out season with a .310 batting average, 29 HR and 98 RBI. There’s some exciting young talent on this team who are beginning to scratch the surface of their potential.
But despite the team’s improvement, the gap between the Marlins and Nationals for the division lead is insurmountable, and the 5.5 game defect behind the Colorado Rockies for the second wild-card spot is daunting.
Don’t tell manager Don Mattingly that, though. He told Healey that despite the pressure to win games late in the season, anything is possible.
“I've never stopped thinking about it,” the Marlins’ manager said Sunday. “I've always known if you go out there and play, games come off the board. They get hard to win. We've just been walking down the road. I just understand how hard it is to win games late in the year. If you're that team up top and you're trying to win games, those games get hard to win. I don't care if you're 10 games up with 15-18 to play. They get hard to win. So there is a pressure on those games. Really, our job is to just win our series and to give us a chance.”
The Marlins have played competitively against many quality teams, with a nothing-to-lose mentality under Mattingly. The offense has carried the Marlins during this winning stretch, outscoring their opponents 189 - 183, and now hold the fourth-best batting average (.266) in baseball. While the Fish are blasting the ball out of the ballpark (16th in the majors in home runs), and outscoring teams in high-scoring shootouts, statistics suggest the team’s winning ways are not sustainable.
The Marlins are 25th in the majors in walks, and 17th in runs scored. While the offense has been hot this season, these stats suggest the Marlins would struggle on offense in playoff games. Why? It’s unrealistic to win games if a team can’t force walks, and sporadically score runs in bunches. Whether it’s the playoffs or late in the regular season, games are not won 12-8 or 9-8 like they were against the atrocious Philadelphia Phillies (29th in runs scored) this week.
Out-hitting playoff-destined teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers or Washington Nationals does not seem plausible, let alone possible. Both teams are among the best in the majors in nearly every offensive category. To compete against the best teams in baseball you must out-pitch them, something the Marlins have statistically proven they can’t do.
The Marlins are 19th in earned run average (4.60), third in walks allowed and 27th in strike outs. They give up a lot of runs, walk an astronomical amount of batters and don't strike many out consistently.
Do they have any pitchers that can last deep in games? No, as a team they’re 28th in innings pitched.
Is there any starting pitcher that can guarantee them a quality start? No, they rank dead last in quality starts (41 this season). Their pitching staff is like a box of chocolates: You never know what you’re going to get.
History suggests the Marlins offensive tear and scoring ability will decline, but the crash and burn of the pitching staff will be the death of their playoff aspirations. Sure, Dan Straily and José Ureña are good pitchers who can give good outings. But, to expect them to out-duel Clayton Kershaw and the rest of the star-studded staff of LA, or Max Scherzer and the exceptional Nationals’ staff, seems like a pipe-dream. Even out-pitching Zach Greinke and the Arizona Diamondbacks, or out-hitting the Rockies loaded lineup in a one-game playoff seems far-fetched.
The Marlins are in second place in the NL East, but it’s important to not lose sight of what stats suggest: All of their holes will be exposed, eventually. They traded two of their best relievers. They are missing their corner infielders. They don’t have a true top-of-the-rotation starter, and lack pitching depth. Until ownership and management make changes to the roster, the team will stay stuck in the sports purgatory; good, but not good enough. There’s no award for second place, nor praise for almost succeeding in baseball, but the Marlins are playing noticeably better than last season. Let’s cheer their wins and mourn their losses as the season winds down, because it’s the closest thing the Marlins will have to playoff baseball...for now.