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Excellent Marlins Feature in NY Times


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Marlins Are Picking Up This Season Right Where They Left Off



Published: April 18, 2004



HE season after the Florida Marlins won the 1997 World Series, they won their opening game, then lost the next 11. They never recovered, finishing in last place, a whopping 52 games from first.


The season after the Marlins won the 2003 World Series, they won their opening game, then won seven of eight. They entered yesterday in first place, three games ahead of the Mets and the Atlanta Braves.



The 1998 Marlins never had a chance to learn if they had a chance to repeat because the owner, H. Wayne Huizenga, ordered the team demolished, as if it were a new Mercedes taken to a junkyard. These Marlins will not only have a chance to find out if they can repeat, but they will also have a chance to become a division champion instead of a wild card.


That's because they have a solid young corps of starting pitchers and much of their championship nucleus intact. Jeffrey Loria, the second owner of the Marlins since Huizenga, said last year that he wouldn't dismantle the team, and he has not, though they did lose a third of their starting lineup (Ivan Rodriguez as a free agent, Derrek Lee and Juan Encarnacion in trades) and a starting pitcher (Mark Redman).


But if anyone wondered where the Marlins' strength lay, the pitchers demonstrated their importance last week by shutting out the Expos for a three-game series.


The remarkable performance gave the Marlins four consecutive shutouts over the Expos (in eight days), the first time a team has achieved that feat, Elias Sports Bureau research found, since the Baltimore Orioles shut out the Washington Senators four consecutive times in 1969. No team has shut out another team five games in a row.


"The Marlins are a good-looking team right now," Expos General Manager Omar Minaya said after the series in Puerto Rico. "They're playing with the intensity they had in the playoffs. The way they're playing now they're playing better than when they beat the Yankees in the World Series."


Loria echoed Minaya's assessment of the Marlins. "The players look at this season as a continuation of last season," Loria said. "They feel their cup is half full, not half empty, and they're playing that way."


Loria was quick to acknowledge that it's too early to draw any conclusions. Lose a few games and a good start becomes insignificant. Indeed, a streak in which a team wins eight of nine games can occur any time, but it is magnified when it starts a season.


The kind of pitching the Marlins had in their first nine games can't help but result in more victories. Shut out the other team, and the odds of winning are pretty good.


Dontrelle Willis, last season's rookie sensation, has allowed no runs in two starts and 12 2/3 innings, giving him a 0.00 earned run average. Going into the weekend, his fellow starters have low E.R.A.'s, too: Josh Beckett 0.64, Brad Penny 1.80, Carl Pavano 1.98. Darren Oliver is the exception at 4.85. The staff E.R.A. was 1.62 before last night's game, good enough to fuel any winning streak.


But perhaps the most intriguing element of the Marlins' pitching has been the relief work of Armando Benitez. Forsaken by many other teams, Benitez gained saves in his first six appearances, allowing just one run, a home run, naturally, in six innings.


"I think the pitchers are as good as they were last year, and they've had an additional year of maturity," Loria said. "They all feed off each other."


The Marlins didn't have Willis at the start of last season, even though Jeff Torborg, the manager for the first six weeks, strongly urged the front office to call him up. It finally did May 9, two days before Jack McKeon replaced Torborg.


Miguel Cabrera also did not start the season with the Marlins. He was called up from Class AA, same as Willis, June 20. He played left and third base last season but is now playing right field.


Cabrera, who turns 21 today, hit 12 home runs in 87 games last season but slugged six in the first eight games this season. He took an .868 slugging percentage, .415 on-base percentage and .368 batting average into the game last night in Atlanta.


"He reminds me a lot of the young Gonzalez and the young Sosa," said Minaya, who was with Juan Gonzalez and Sammy Sosa when they began their careers in the Texas organization. "At this stage he's probably better than they were at his age."


Joining Cabrera in the power plan is Hee Seop Choi, who as Lee's replacement at first base had five home runs in his first six hits.





The Marlins face two questions in the immediate future: can they continue playing well enough to remain in first place, and can they work out financing for a new park by their self-imposed deadline of May 1?


"We're working on it," Loria said of the new park. "We're working hard to get it done prior to May 1. We need to open in 2007. Everybody knows that." What if they don't work out the financing? "I'm not going to answer that," Loria said.


Willis Wonderful at Bat, Too


Besides being perfect as a pitcher, Dontrelle Willis is perfect as a hitter. In his two games, he has six hits (four singles, a double and a home run) in six at-bats. Besides his 1.000 batting average and on-base percentage, he has a 1.667 slugging percentage.


Before yesterday's games, the left-handed-hitting Willis had 10.2 percent of the 59 hits all pitchers had, and his 1.000 average dwarfed the .168 average generated by all other pitchers. The last time a pitcher had at least six consecutive hits, the Elias Sports Bureau said, was in 2001 when Livan Hern?ndez stroked eight hits in a row.

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