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SKOLNICK: Marlins need an august effort

Published August 2, 2004

 

 

Admin Beinfest did his part.

 

The general manager lengthened the lineup and shortened the game. He brought in an outfielder (Juan Encarnacion) who should immediately be comfortable and a catcher (Paul Lo Duca) who won't let slackers get comfortable.

 

He acquired a reliever (Guillermo Mota) who can close the eighth inning so offseason acquisition Armando Benitez can close more ninths. He improved the defense at several positions, reproved the commitment and raised the stakes. He removed a quality starting pitcher (Brad Penny) but reduced the pressure on others to pitch so long and so perfectly.

 

Now his Marlins, wobbly for months, must do their part.

 

Emphasis on now.

 

They caught a break Sunday, getting a rainout after falling behind again to the hapless Expos. Now they need to catch fire, against somebody besides the flummoxed Phillies.

 

"We've got to start doing it on the field," manager Jack McKeon said. "It's time to stop talking about it. We've got to go do it. It's time to walk the walk now."

 

That's because McKeon knows the best closer in baseball isn't Benitez or Eric Gagne.

 

The best closer in baseball is the Atlanta Braves.

 

Everyone harps on how Bobby Cox's team has closed its postseasons, winning only one World Series despite 12 straight playoff appearances. But they simply don't cough up division leads. And now, somehow, after several offseason defections and seasonlong slumps, they are atop the NL East again.

 

They lead the third-place Marlins by six games, in the only race that really matters. McKeon acknowledged Sunday that the Marlins probably had to win the division to make the playoffs. Make that definitely. The wild card race is much too cluttered, and the Cubs' roster in particular is much too deep.

 

So before the Marlins can be World Series champions for a third time, they must be division champions for a first time.

 

Time runs short.

 

They didn't help themselves by going 1-10 in their past 11 games against the Expos and Pirates. They now get three games at last-in-the-majors Arizona, which is without its three most accomplished hitters from Opening Day.

 

The Marlins must sweep this series, which includes beating Randy Johnson on Wednesday.

 

They must start making August their month to make September and October mean anything.

 

Certainly, it's the only way to give them any margin for error, as they play 25 of their final 31 against the NL East and the other six against the Cubs. As Juan Pierre said, "Last year we had to win those games. Hopefully, we don't have to dig that deep."

 

They can't dig their hole any deeper.

 

"It's time for us to make our move," Mike Lowell said. "We got 58 games left, and you can't afford to be 10 games out going into September. We got the players that we thought could help us, and it shouldn't take us five games to find out whether we're good or not. I think it should be an immediate result."

 

It has to be.

 

It should be.

 

The Marlins are actually closer to last season than they've been for all of 2004. They have Encarnacion back, deepening the order if he returns to form. They have a legitimate setup man, as they did when Chad Fox emerged. They have four legitimate starters, though Dontrelle Willis needs to be more consistent and, as McKeon said, "We need to get A.J. [burnett] and [Josh] Beckett" to step it up. The two must stay healthy enough to make their 25 or so starts. And they must win more than the six they've won in their first 25. (On the road, they're 1-8 with a 6.49 ERA).

 

It should help both that the Marlins again have a contact-making, run-producing catcher hitting third.

 

Lo Duca has some of Pudge Rodriguez's presence behind and at the plate. And though he doesn't look or sound imposing, he may have even more presence in the clubhouse, as soon as he gets his footing -- he packed for two weeks and had to leave his pregnant wife back in Los Angeles.

 

"If somebody steps out of line, I'm going to tell them," Lo Duca said. "I'm not a guy who is going to walk into a clubhouse and tell everybody what to do. Not at all. I'm talking about little things that are in and out of the clubhouse. Your manager, your coaches, they don't have to police what goes on here. You do that yourself."

 

Lowell said "it took all of 20 minutes" in 2003 to know new addition Jeff Conine would fit in. He thinks Lo Duca will too, because he is aggressive, committed and talented.

 

"And, hey, if he wants to get in someone's face, that's fine," Lowell said. "As long as it's for the betterment of the team."

 

The Marlins better get in the Braves' faces. And quick.

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