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Marlins' 'Big 3' need to lead way

By Greg Stoda

 

Palm Beach Post Columnist

 

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

 

MIAMI GARDENS ? It was back during spring training when Marlins manager Jack McKeon sat at a picnic table in Roger Dean Stadium, considering a possible scenario.

 

What, he was asked, would he think of his team's regular-season chances in the National League should Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett combine for something along the lines of 60 starts?

 

Pretty good, McKeon figured.

 

And then he asked his own question: "What if you throw Dontrelle Willis in there and get 90 starts?"

 

Almost a cinch for the playoffs was my reply.

 

Yeah, well, funny how things work out... but perhaps won't.

 

Burnett's start Tuesday night in Dolphins Stadium against Arizona was the trio's 66th of the season, which puts the group on a pace for 95 when the counting is done. And the Marlins ? 5-0 winners against the Diamondbacks ? moved to 40-26 when someone among Beckett, Burnett and Willis starts regardless of whether or not he then gets a decision.

 

The problem, of course, is that Florida is a miserable 18-28 when anyone other than The Big Three takes the mound at the start of a game. That's way too much to overcome ? and, mostly, Al Leiter's doing ? and it's why the Marlins are in difficult position within the NL East (6 1/2 games behind Atlanta) and reduced to trying to chase down Houston (two games back) in the wild-card race.

 

Margin of error shrinking

 

They certainly aren't dead in either regard.

 

McKeon, though, is guessing "89, 90, 91" wins is what it will take to earn the wild-card spot... and several more than that to beat the Braves in the East.

 

A pre-season formula for 90 wins was to get 54 of them when Beckett, Burnett or Willis pitched (.600) and break even in the other games (36-36).

 

"We all realize those are the (three) guys who give us a chance every time," McKeon said, "but we can't put all the pressure on them the next couple of months."

 

Except there's not much choice.

 

The Marlins' margin for error has been shrinking steadily because of their offensive shortcomings. The primary season-long difficulties have taken root in Juan Pierre's dip (.258) at the top of the lineup and the lack of production from Mike Lowell (48 RBI) in the middle of it.

 

Florida, for example, scored all of six runs in a nasty doubleheader loss Monday to Colorado in the hitters' haven of Coors Field.

 

"With nobody else playing, we had a chance to gain ground," Lowell said of the worse-than-wasted day.

 

Instead, they slipped deeper into the pack.

 

The Marlins have displayed little frustration regarding their inconsistency. Nor did they seem especially discouraged or demoralized after the Colorado collapse, and recovered nicely on little sleep to beat Arizona.

 

"You have to forget it and you can't look too far ahead, either, or you'll ruin what's right in front of you," said Lowell, who had two hits and scored two runs.

 

What's right in front of them is the 13-game homestand that began with the victory against the Diamondbacks during which the Marlins will do much to set their season's course.

 

"We have plenty of games left," McKeon said.

 

Fifty, to be exact.

 

Burnett does his job

 

Approximately 30 of those starts ? unforeseen incidents notwithstanding ? should go to Beckett, Burnett and Willis... and the Marlins likely need to win two-thirds of those at the minimum to have any chance of making the playoffs.

 

Burnett's three-hit shutout performance against Arizona was a very nice beginning, and he recognized the odd August pressure coming off what had happened in Denver.

 

He called that little Marlins' side trip (home from Cincinnati by way of the Rocky Mountains) a "circus" he was happy not to have to make. Burnett flew to South Florida on Sunday night instead of accompanying the team to its makeup date in Colorado.

 

It was good preparation and rest for what turned out to be a 120-pitch effort.

 

Burnett hoped to "lift our team up" after the Colorado debacle, and did so. He has been brilliant ever since his name received serious mention in recent trade talks.

 

Burnett would like nothing better than to help push Florida back into the playoffs after having missed its 2003 World Series championship run in the wake of undergoing Tommy John surgery early in that season. He admitted not being an on-field part of that accomplishment is what's "driving" him now.

 

The Marlins do have considerable head-to-head opportunity against both Houston (four games on the road) and Atlanta (six games on an even home-away split) remaining on the schedule. But not one of those contests will be played for more than a month.

 

Here's the question: Will the 20 or so starts the Marlins' three headline starters ought to get between now and then make those late-season assignments matter?

 

You could say it's a little negative, but I don't think there's a more accurate assessment of the team by any other member of the local media...

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I think Valdez has only 2 starts.

Can't really blame Moehler for most of the season- he's done as good as a #5 can and his run support has been atrocious. True he hasn't pitched very well as of late, but you can't really fault him too much as he's done a nice job.

 

Leiter, on the other hand, can easily explain those poor numbers, i.e, 18-28.

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So we have to go 31-18 to make the playoffs? I suppose it depends on what Houston does as we only have 2 games to make up. We have 4 games in Houston next month and that could very well determine who has the best chance at the post-season.

898393[/snapback]

 

Well, you have to figure that two of the teams around us will play significantly better than .500 ball, so the 31-18 sounds about right.

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