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Marlins article in the New York Times


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WHO knew that these guys read the newspaper, this newspaper at that? But Florida Marlins pitchers have seemingly taken to heart a comment made in these pages two weeks ago.


The key to the Marlins' season, we suggested in a season preview, was their pitching: "A. J. Burnett, Josh Beckett and Dontrelle Willis have to take charge and pull Al Leiter along in a show of pitching force."


It's only two weeks into the season, but talk about a show of force. Marlins pitchers are blowing everybody away.


In the first 10 games, before yesterday, Willis pitched two shutouts, a five-hitter and a three-hitter; Beckett threw a five-hit shutout and allowed only two hits in working six innings of another shutout; and Burnett gave up two runs in another complete game.


While the pitching staff had pitched four complete games and four shutouts, the 15 other National League teams had pitched a total of three complete games and nine shutouts. The Marlins had three complete-game shutouts; the rest of the league had two.


The Marlins had a 1.34 earned run average. Next best was Milwaukee's 2.85. The Marlins' opponents' batting average was .193. Next lowest was .221 against the Mets.


Not that the Marlins can expect this sort of dominance to continue, but they have waited patiently for their young pitchers to step up, and it seems they have started this season with giant steps.


Speaking of Beckett and Burnett just before the season, Manager Jack McKeon said: "Both of these guys have to step up. This potential stuff, sooner or later you have to do it."


Then, speaking strictly of Burnett, he added: "I think he has a different mind-set, not thinking he has to strike everyone out. When a guy comes up, they ballyhoo their power arm. They think the only way they're going to be recognized is to be a strikeout pitcher. We're trying to get him to be economical with his pitches. Get them to hit the ball."


In Burnett's last start, against Philadelphia last Tuesday, he pitched a complete game, struck out only three and threw only 103 pitches. If McKeon could package that performance, he would bring it out every time Burnett pitches.


McKeon would do the same with the performances of Willis and Beckett. In his shutouts against Washington and the Phillies, Willis threw 97 and 114 pitches. Beckett used 110 pitches in shutting out the Nationals.


Leiter, however, undermined himself in his first two starts, each a Marlins loss. Armed with a history of throwing a lot of pitches, Leiter, a 39-year-old left-hander, threw 95 pitches in five and two-thirds innings against Atlanta and 114 in five innings against the Phillies.


Leiter pitched for the 1997 team that won the World Series. The Marlins, a 1993 expansion team, won the World Series a second time in 2003. Can they do it again this year?


"With this team, unlike the '97 team, there's no wonder whether they can do it or not," Leiter said. "You're told and you talk about how good you are. Almost everybody in this room was here two years ago. They know what it takes. They know the feeling. They know what's needed to be done to achieve it. They've done it. It's not only a talented group of guys. It's a group that experienced what we play for."


Unlike the 1997 owner, H. Wayne Huizenga, Jeffrey Loria, the current owner, didn't decimate his championship team. "We didn't break up the team," he said. "We didn't run and hide. We made commitments and we stuck to them."


The most unlikely commitment was the $52 million Loria gave Carlos Delgado, a left-handed-hitting first baseman for a predominantly right-handed lineup. The move was economically uncharacteristic of Loria.


"That changed the lineup," Loria said. "It's changed the whole complexion of how people have to pitch to us. That's why we did it. Also because of my commitment to continue to make things better here, which we've done since Day 1."


The Marlins won the two World Series as a wild-card team. These Marlins are not prepared to settle and try it again as the wild card. "No one comes out of spring training saying they want to win the wild card," Delgado said. "Everybody will tell you they want to win their division." But when it was pointed out to him that a wild card had won the last three World Series, he said: "It's a crazy game. That's why we love it so much."


Willis, like Delgado, said he preferred finishing first but acknowledged that "the goal is to play in October."


"There's definitely been a coincidence," said Willis, who at 23 is the youngest of the starters. "It helps because when you're the wild card, you have that last month as a battle because there are so many other teams battling for the wild card as opposed to one team being the front-runner and winning their division. The last couple years there were about eight teams going for that final playoff spot. That's fun."


Tickets Are Going Pricey


Fans are not only disregarding the so-called steroid scandal by flocking to games, very possibly in record numbers this season, but also by paying sky-high prices for tickets. According to TicketsNow.com, a Web site that obtains tickets from brokers and sells the tickets online, fans who wanted to attend season openers paid prices well above the top ticket price for some teams' games. Some examples:


Red Sox, $3,000


Yankees, $2,250


Nationals, $720


Cubs, $500


Royals, $152


Reinforcements Wanted, Already


The Atlanta Braves fortified their pitching staff for a run at their 14th consecutive division championship, but they also had to fill two holes in the outfield, so they signed two veterans, Brian Jordan, who had played for them before, and Raul Mondesi, who had a weird season last year with Pittsburgh and Anaheim.


Before Friday night, Jordan and Mondesi had not had the hitting touch they had demonstrated in their careers, and their start to the season had to leave the Braves wondering if they had a Plan B lying around somewhere.


Mondesi, in his first seven games, batted .154, drove in two runs, struck out a team-high seven times and had a .185 on-base percentage and a .231 slugging percentage. In eight games, Jordan batted .167 with a home run, four R.B.I., a .242 on-base percentage and a .267 slugging percentage. That kind of production wasn't likely to win any division titles.


But against Philadelphia on Friday night, Jordan drove in three runs and Mondesi slugged two home runs.


Who's on First? Niekro the Younger


In the biography of Joe Niekro in the 1986 Yankees media guide, the members of his family who are listed include son Lance. The next player in the guide is Lance's uncle, Phil. Lance was 7 years old that year.


Today Lance is 26, and like his father and uncle before him, a major leaguer, with the Giants.


"He was one of the last players sent down in spring training," his father said. "He played one game in Fresno and was called up the next day when Moises Alou went on the disabled list. I called him Friday to tell him how my mother was doing, and he called me an hour later and told me he was going to San Francisco. I was thrilled. I told my mom, who's in the hospital, and she just about jumped out of bed."


Joe, whose 22-year career ended at the age of 43 in 1988, said Lance's presence in the majors didn't make him feel old. "It makes me very, very proud," he said. "Watching the Giants game on ESPN and seeing him play first base and seeing 'Niekro' on his back made me proud."


Lance is the first Niekro to play in the majors who doesn't throw a knuckleball, though he threw it when he pitched in high school.


"He had a pretty good knuckleball," his father said. "His junior year he was 11-1. But he decided if he was going to play professional baseball, it would be playing every day. I agreed with that."


A .311 minor league hitter despite what his father called freakish injuries, Lance played with the Giants briefly at the end of the 2003 season, then spent all of last season in the minors. Joe said he didn't know what the Giants would do with Lance when their manager's son comes off the disabled list, but Joe said, "He's definitely their first baseman of the future."


Trying to Be Practical


The commissioner's office has been promoting its minor league steroids testing program, but it turns out that not all minor leaguers have been tested from the start of the program in 2001. Players in the four domestic rookie leagues and in the Dominican Republic rookie league were not tested until last year. Players in the Venezuelan rookie league will be tested beginning this year.


Rob Manfred, the executive who oversees the testing program, said baseball hadn't hidden that fact, though little, if anything, was said during the first three years of the testing program.


Manfred said that when he debated Fernando Mateo, the president of Hispanics Across America, before last season on the issue of testing in the Dominican league, "I said publicly we don't test in the domestic rookie leagues."


"I made that argument in terms of making the point why we weren't in the Dominican summer league," he said.


Why hadn't baseball tested in the four domestic and two Latin rookie leagues?


"We started with the players closest to the major leagues and worked down to the rookie leagues and the Dominican and Venezuela," Manfred said. "It's a question of how much you can expand at the same time. We did 5,000 minor league tests last year."



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