They are supremely confident, exceptionally talented and--for now, at least--the best trio of starters on any pitching staff in baseball. Their pitching styles, temperaments and interests differ, but righthanders Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett and lefthander Dontrelle Willis of the Florida Marlins share the aura that comes with being young and scary good. Consider what the Philadelphia Phillies were up against last weekend in losing two of three games to them. ¬∂ In the opener on Friday, the Phils mustered five hits and two runs against the intense but even-tempered Burnett, 28, whose looping curve can be as unhittable as his 100-mph heater. On Saturday, in a game shortened to 5 1/2 innings by rain, they were held to three hits and one run by the animated Dontrelle Willis, 23, who releases his pitches with his trademark high-kick delivery and relies on his fastball and slider to paint the corners of the plate. Philly finally broke through on Sunday, scoring five runs in the first two innings against the hotheaded Josh Beckett, 24, who had started 4-1 with a 1.36 ERA by beating down hitters with his four-seam fastball.
Although the three entered the season with one All-Star appearance, a .518 career winning percentage (87-81) and zero 15-win seasons among them, their blazing start, great potential and the breakup of the Tim Hudson--Mark Mulder--Barry Zito triumvirate by the cost-cutting A's last winter make Beckett, Burnett and Willis the most impressive core of starters in the majors. At week's end they had combined for a 12-3 record, 2.10 ERA and 8.07 strikeouts per nine innings, and the Marlins (14-9) were in first place in the National League East.
"It's ridiculous that [the Marlins] have three guys like that," says first baseman Sean Casey of the Cincinnati Reds, who were shut down by Burnett and Willis (four runs allowed, 20 strikeouts in 12 innings) in losses to the Marlins on April 22 and 23. "If they stay healthy, I don't see anyone else winning their division."
While the most celebrated threesome in recent years--Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine of the 1990s Atlanta Braves--thrived on friendly competition on the golf course as much as on the diamond, the Marlins' trio is mostly business. "We feed off one another just by watching the other guy pitch," says Beckett. "One day you sit in the dugout and watch someone throw a shutout, and you want to do the same the next day."
The three occasionally go to dinner together, but they don't have much in common off the field. Beckett, who arrives at the ballpark with country music blaring out of his car stereo, likes to hunt and fish. As the only married one of the three, Burnett, a headbanger who has tattoos, nipple rings and bats emblazoned with the names of rockers such as Marilyn Manson and Ozzy Osbourne, hangs out at home with wife Karen and sons Allan and Ashton (and he bangs on his drums to relax). Willis, who before games bounces around the clubhouse listening to rap on his iPod, watches a lot of movies.
"We've all got our own things going on, but we get along well and are constantly helping each other out," says Willis. "The one thing about us is that we can take criticism, so we're not afraid to tell each other stuff that will help the other person. We're a unit, a family, however different we are."
They do have this in common: Since coming up to the major leagues each has shown signs of brilliance but has been unable to sustain it. At 23 Beckett was named 2003 World Series MVP after throwing a shutout on three days' rest in the championship-clinching Game 6 at Yankee Stadium; the following season he was an erratic 9-9 while making three trips to the disabled list with a blister on his right middle finger and a strained back muscle. At 24, Burnett threw a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres in '01; over the next three injury-plagued seasons--he had Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in '03--he won 19 games. As a 21-year-old rookie in '03, Willis started 9-1 with a 2.08 ERA and was in the All-Star Game; for the rest of the season plus all of '04, he was a sub-.500 pitcher.
"We've always known how talented they are," says centerfielder Juan Pierre. "We've just been waiting for them to put it all together for a whole season. If this is the year, well, then the sky's the limit with this team."
Making a big difference this season is new pitching coach Mark Wiley, who in November replaced Wayne Rosenthal (one of three coaches fired after Florida finished 83-79 and ranked eighth in the league with a 4.10 ERA). A former prospect of the Minnesota Twins and a pitching coach for the Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals, Wiley, 57, spent the winter studying videotape of the Florida staff. One day in January he couldn't wait to tell Willis about a discovery he'd made. Willis was relaxing in his Miami apartment when the pitching coach called and started going on about the lefthander's corkscrew delivery. "There's nothing wrong with his motion, as complex as it looks," Wiley says now. "But I noticed that when he got into certain situations--with the game on the line or with runners on base--he'd try to overthrow, and his delivery would get a little out of control. I told him to be as consistent as possible, and he's doing that."
Last season Willis went 10-11 with a 4.02 ERA and only once strung together three consecutive quality starts (six or more innings pitched with three or fewer earned runs allowed). In spring training this year he worked hard to get his rhythm down, to the point that he counted to three, marking each stage in his delivery on every pitch. Throwing with a more consistent motion, Willis was 5-0 with a 1.29 ERA at week's end. He addressed another problem--second-half fatigue (in the last two seasons after the All-Star break he lost 11 of 19 decisions and had a 4.30 ERA)--by joining Pierre in an intense conditioning program in Boca Raton, Fla., over the winter. "Every morning we woke up before the sun rose to go work out," Willis says. "We did everything: running, lifting, you name it. It was painful, and I didn't enjoy it. But looking back now, I feel really good that I did it. And my body feels great too."
Wiley also tinkered with Burnett's delivery, so he wouldn't turn his left hip so far toward third base. Burnett's old delivery, says Wiley, made it more difficult for him to pitch to the first base side of the plate. Says Burnett, who was 3-1 with a 2.43 ERA through Sunday, "I'm more under control. [The change] allows me to stay balanced and go toward home plate with a smooth effort."
Considering his young starters' histories of injuries and wearing down, Marlins manager Jack McKeon has raised eyebrows by working them deep into games early in the season. "Jack rolled the dice, and everything worked out well when Beckett beat the Yankees on three days' [rest] at Yankee Stadium," says one scout, "but overextending pitchers over the long haul will not work. Look at the Cubs' [oft-injured righthanders Mark Prior and Kerry Wood]."
Beckett, Burnett and Willis combined for five complete games in Florida's first 12 outings, but in those five games they averaged a relatively low 106 pitches. Burnett's 115 in six innings against the Reds on April 22 were the most by any Marlins starter this year. "It's not about innings, it's about pitches," says Seattle Mariners pitching coach Bryan Price. "When you get to 130 pitches or more is when I think you'd have to wonder."
Wiley points to the physical stature of Beckett (6'5", 222 pounds), Burnett (6'4", 230) and Willis (6'4", 239). "All three of them are big, strong guys, who came to camp in outstanding shape and ready to go," says Wiley, who sits next to McKeon in the dugout and has a voice on how long to leave a pitcher in the game, though it's ultimately the manager's decision. "If they can keep their pitches down, there's no reason why they can't throw more complete games."
The 74-year-old McKeon, an old-school manager who puffs on cigars as he tells musty baseball stories in the dugout before games, is the first to admit that he doesn't pay much attention to pitch counts. That could prove dangerous for Burnett, who threw only 143 major league innings over the last two seasons combined, and Beckett, who has never thrown more than 156 in a season. "The only guys who worry about pitch counts are writers and broadcasters," says McKeon. "I'm worried about getting outs. When I was in the minor leagues, we used to have 17-man rosters. You can figure how many pitchers you would carry--seven or eight at most. You don't think those guys ran up some high pitch counts?"
Says Burnett, "I don't really worry about pitch counts. A lot of it has to do with the game and how you get to that total, whatever it is. If you're in shape, I don't think you should have any problem throwing 115 pitches a game."
To help keep pitch counts down, Wiley preaches the value of efficiency: Get the easy groundball and trust your defense. "[In the past] I wanted to strike out everybody," says Beckett. "Now I have to step back and tell myself to stop thinking that way. I think we're seeing the light now." Indeed, for all their stellar numbers this season, the three starters have strikeout rates roughly on par with their career averages. "I'm just doing what [Wiley] tells us," says Burnett. "I'm getting ahead of hitters, throwing strikes and letting my defense work behind me."
If the big three remain healthy, and veterans Al Leiter, a 39-year-old lefthander, and Brian Moehler, a 33-year-old righty, provide quality starts, the Marlins could not only end Atlanta's run of 13 straight division championships but also go deep into October. Says one NL general manager, "They have a rotation that could take over a postseason." ‚ñ†