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This time, Marlins-Rays rivalry is worth watching


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This time, Marlins-Rays rivalry is worth watching

BY GREG COTE

 

There is something called the Citrus Series trophy. It is an engraved crystal bowl with five fake oranges in it, and it goes to whichever team wins the annual intrastate series between the Florida Marlins and the Tampa Bay Rays.

 

Accurately mirroring the historically tepid state of this supposed rivalry, the Marlins weren't sure Monday where the prize in their possession actually was.

 

''The infamous Citrus Series trophy is somewhere. I'm not sure if it's lost,'' club vice president P.J. Loyello said. ``Could be a paperweight in somebody's office.''

 

Loyello snooped around and eventually located the cup, whose engraving indicates it is sponsored by Amtrak and began in 1999. The point is, it is a prize that hasn't meant much because this series hasn't, either.

 

As rivalries go, Marlins-Rays probably would not be confused with, say, Yankees-Red Sox. Even in the context of interleague play, Marlins-Rays probably doesn't stir passions the way, for example, Cubs-White Sox does.

 

To be honest, Marlins-Rays has been a pretty lousy series, a contrived rivalry and certainly not one inspiring robust crowds between two teams usually jockeying dubiously for baseball's lowest attendance average.

 

Nor has the intersection of Marlins-Rays ever been of more than parochial interest, because the teams have never met with both in a playoff chase.

 

Until now.

 

This time, finally, Marlins-Rays matters.

 

This series used to be a baseball joke. Now the punchline is punching back.

 

PLAYOFF CONTENDERS

 

Tampa Bay has the third-best record in the American League and would be in the playoffs for the first time in its 11-year history if the season ended today. Florida, twice world champion but otherwise postseason-bereft in its 16 seasons, has the National League's fifth-best record and is a mere one game off playoff pace.

 

A Marlins-Rays World Series still isn't something you would bet much on, but, for the first time, the mention of it earns a grudging admission of plausibility, at least, instead of the usual gale of incredulous laughter.

 

Both teams continue, from a national vantage, as assumed pretenders who most think will eventually fall below the radar again, below relevance. Instead, the Rays are hanging with the defending champion Red Sox, and the Marlins are tailgating the Phillies, and it means the three-game Marlins-Rays series commencing Tuesday night here means something to more than just these two teams.

 

It means something to baseball. Means something to this season.

 

Tampa is a robust 13 games above .500. The Marlins are only plus-five. But if you ventured in February that Florida would be where it is at right now, as the All-Star Break looms, you might have seen doubtful looks even from the Marlins.

 

The mind casts back to spring training, and manager Fredi Gonzalez offering a sobering, two-word outlook for the season when he was asked what his biggest concern was:``Starting pitching.''

 

Now, almost halfway through the season, it confounds common sense how the Marlins are winning like they are.

 

TROUBLING NUMBERS

 

One number offers incredible evidence -- a majors-leading 112 home runs -- but otherwise almost every meaningful statistic condemns Florida rather than furthers its cause.

 

The Marlins rank only 22nd of 30 teams in batting (.256), and no team strikes out more at the plate.

 

The team also ranks 22nd in ERA (4.46), walks the third-most batters and is a below-average 13 for 24 in save opportunities.

 

Most damning, Florida ranks dead last in the majors in fielding (.976), leading everybody in the probability of giving away runs.

 

Oh, almost forgot: This is the team that traded away its two best players, in Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis.

 

How is this happening?

 

Marlins believers must constantly defend their team, but some things cannot be explained. They just are. This is a team that gets by on home run power, led by unlikely hero Dan Uggla, on happy chemistry and with role players such as Cody Ross and Wes Helms and Renyel Pinto turning up in starring roles more often than makes sense.

 

Now, incredibly, this looks like a team poised to get stronger, with Josh Willingham finally set to return from injury Tuesday night, the same day pitcher Josh Johnson makes a Double A start on an accelerated path back from serious surgery.

 

The onus now is on the club's front office to add, not subtract.

 

Most years, as the trade deadline approached, Marlins fans would feel dread at the prospect of the team jettisoning top players to cut salary. This year, with the new stadium coming and a team in legitimate contention, the Marlins need to strengthen for the stretch run, or at least keep the pieces they have.

 

But that's down the road a bit. Enjoy what is now.

 

It is Marlins vs. Rays.

 

And it matters.

 

Miami Herald

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I will be watching. Go Fish! I was hoping to get down for a game or two, but I can not get enough time off for the trip. I will be leaving work early Thursday to watch that day game. I see it will be televised on the Ray's network. Anyone in the Jacksonville area interested in meeting up some place for wings, beer, and baseball?

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