Monday April 20th, 2009

They have the best record in baseball. The 11-1 start is not only the best in franchise history but also the best to start a season by any team in six years. With a current winning streak of seven games, their divisional lead (five games) is double the next-largest in the game. Step aside, Phillies and Mets. Make room Yankees, Rays and Red Sox. Two weeks into the season, the Florida Marlins are the true beasts of the East.

The preseason hype surrounding the aforementioned established powers was so pronounced that it seemed to suggest they would be battling not only for division titles and postseason berths, but quite possibly world domination. And while that may yet prove to be the case, for now, each of them -- and in fact all of baseball -- is looking up at the game's southernmost team.

"They'll be a real pain in the butt for everybody in that division all year long," says one veteran scout who has followed them closely. "They're the pit bulls of the division. They're a scrappy bunch that has a collective chip on their shoulder."

If the Marlins' start has been a surprise, an even bigger one has been the democratic way in which they've done it.

"It's not just one guy getting the job done," second baseman Dan Uggla told reporters after the Marlins beat the Nationals on Sunday to complete a second consecutive three-game series sweep on the road. "Multiple guys are capable of [it]. It's not always going to be the guys you think it's going to be."

What would normally sound like just another clichéd sound bite from a player anxious to leave the clubhouse has the unmistakable ring of truth. As the Marlins have surged to 11 wins in their first 12 games, it has truly been a team effort. In fact, a poll on the Miami Herald's Web site asked readers "Who has been the key to the Marlins' hot start?" The nominal options were Emilio Bonifacio, Josh Johnson, Jorge Cantu or John Baker. But the winner, with 30 percent, was "someone else."

That result, and the fact that all-world shortstop Hanley Ramirez wasn't even an option in the voting, offers a telling snapshot of the first-place Fish. For instance, the team's individual statistical leaders fail to reveal a single dominant force at this young point in the season, yet almost everyone is contributing. Bonifacio, the often electrifying leadoff hitter, leads the team in hits (17) and runs (13). Jorge Cantu leads the club in batting average (.368). Two different players -- Cody Ross and Jeremy Hermida -- share the top spot with three home runs, while Uggla is first with 12 RBIs.

All those varied contributors have given the Marlins a balanced offense that has proved to be among the best in the game. Last year's team slugged 208 home runs, second best in the National League, but ranked just 11th in batting average at .254. This year's team can still pound the ball, ranking third in homers (15) and second in runs scored (77), but is up to fourth in the league in hitting (.273).

It's not only the starters who have fueled the surge. Manager Fredi Gonzalez's stated philosophy to make use of everyone on his bench has paid dividends. Marlins pinch-hitters are batting .444, second in the majors among teams with more than five pinch-hit at-bats. Trailing by three runs in the ninth inning against the Nationals on Saturday, Gonzalez called on three consecutive pinch-hitters, two of whom (Alfredo Amezaga and Ross Gload) delivered key singles to set the stage for Hermida's game-tying home run.

"You hate to go back to the hotel or back to the house and say, 'I didn't use my best pinch-hitters,' " Gonzalez said afterward.

Gonzalez has been willing to make similar use of his bullpen. All seven members have pitched in at least four games, but only one (Kiko Calero) has pitched in more than six. The 'pen ranks second in the league with a 2.34 ERA, and amassed a 24-inning scoreless streak that was finally snapped on Sunday. The bullpen was a sizable concern heading into the season, and this may prove to be its high-water mark, but its effectiveness thus far has been a significant factor in the fast start.

The bullpen has been even better than the vaunted starting staff, which has been hailed as one of the best in the game. The Marlins built their staff through both the draft (Josh Johnson and Chris Volstad) and shrewd trades (Ricky Nolasco, Anibal Sanchez and Andrew Miller). The result has been a young staff (all five pitchers are between 22 and 26 years old) that has been productive if not yet overpowering and ranks in the middle of the NL in virtually every statistical category, including ERA (fifth), strikeouts (seventh), innings pitched (seventh), opponents batting average (sixth) and hits allowed (fifth). Yet the numbers belie the starters' already sterling reputations, which have been making their way around the majors, dropping the jaws of scouts. Here's one scout's quick-hitting breakdown of the Marlins' staff:

Josh Johnson: "Power guy, low-to-mid 90s sinking fastball and hard slider. A legitimate, big-time starter -- one of the best in the entire division."

Ricky Nolasco: "Above-average fastball, good curve, able to control everything for strikes."

Chris Volstad: "A Jim Palmer clone. Fastball-curveball guy with tremendous upside."

Anibal Sanchez: "Good fastball and curve, has all four pitches. Commands the zone well."

Andrew Miller: "Probably has the best arm of this bunch. He's just a baby who's still learning to play at this level. Won't find many fifth starters with his kind of ability. A fifth starter with second- or third-starter stuff.

If there's one area of caution to temper the Marlins' start, it is their scheduling. They've fattened up by beating the Nationals six straight times, and forecasts them to face the toughest schedule in baseball this season. After opening this week with three games in Pittsburgh, the Marlins come home to face the Phillies for the first time this season before going back on the road to play the Mets and Cubs. By then, the calendar will say May and the standings may well say that the Marlins' start proved to be as quick and harmless as an afternoon thunderstorm in south Florida. "It's such a long season," Uggla said over the weekend. "This start's not going to be worth anything if we don't keep it going."

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