The Book of Mike

"This is no junior college. This is the notorious University of Miami.” -- Marlins starter Dontrelle Willis, after getting knocked around for six runs in 2 1/3 innings by the Canes.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

The Week to Come

As we enter the third full week of the season some patterns of normalcy are starting to return to the game. Barry Bonds is still Barry Bonds in that he appears to be on track to dominating another season, and possibly much of another decade at this point. Eric Gagne is still dominating opposing hitters, a mammoth blast to Barry Bonds over the weekend notwithstanding.

Other pieces of the baseball universe are still a little out of kilter here in mid/late-April. is in a slump. While many expected he would struggle as he adjusted to the Yankees and the New York media, few expected a one hit performance in a four game set against the Red Sox. Other anomalies include the Detroit Tigers playing better than .600 baseball and that the Devil Rays are tied in the standings with the Yankees (although it’s for 3rd place in the AL East).

Where Miami’s beloved Florida Marlins stand right now is more of a mystery. Entering last weekend’s series against the Braves the Marlins were 8 – 1. They left the series, having been swept, with a still impressive record of 8 – 4, but without the momentum they brought into Atlanta. The Marlins have been helped by their young arms in that both the starting pitching and relief corps has been stronger than anticipated so far this year. However, the Fish’s bats have not followed suit. While the Marlins were expected to struggle relative to last year to some degree after losing the big bats of Ivan Rodriguez and Derrek Lee, some expected contributors – particularly Juan Pierre – have struggled out of the gate. Well that and that Miguel Cabrera lost a ball in the sun on Sunday, costing the Marlins a game.

As games scheduled for the third week of the season come, this week’s slate for the Marlins is relatively huge. Beginning tonight the Marlins play the Phillies three times at new Citizens Bank Park. While the Marlins owned the Phillies last year and opened up the 2004 series with a three game sweep at Pro Player Stadium during opening week, this three game series is important to the Marlins as they attempt to re-establish momentum before returning home to play the Braves over the weekend.

Winning both series – two out of the three games in each – would be huge for the Marlins. They are about to embark on a six game road trip next week to Colorado and San Francisco next week, where the team has traditionally not fared well. Although the Marlins defeated the Giants in last year’s playoffs, their road trip to SBC Park, or whatever they were calling it back then, was not a successful one. And regardless of what you think of the Rockies, sending the fragile egos and confidence of Josh Beckett, Dontrelle Willis, and Armando Benitez to the pinball machine that is Coors’ Field is always potentially devastating to a pitching staff.

Besides, the Marlins, Phillies, and Braves were picked by almost everyone for first, second, and third – in some order – in the National League East this year and the Fish won’t see the Braves until late June after this weekend and the Phillies until late July.

For the Marlins to emerge from these two series with four or more wins, we will likely need to see a few things change. One is the frequency with which Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo reach base. While rumors are swirling that the Marlins just aren’t going to run much this year, the fact is that the team’s two biggest base-stealing threats just haven’t been on the bases much so far. Juan Pierre likely put some of the questions about the running game to bed over the weekend when he stole both second and third in one trip around the bases on Sunday.

The rest of the “up the middle” portion of the Marlins defense is also critical to the success of the Marlins offense. While some could conclude that shortstop Alex Gonzalez started out hot last year while the Marlins struggled and that Gonzalez struggled last year while the team was hot, so it isn’t such a bad thing possibly to see Gonzalez struggle, it’s hard to believe that the club can continue to win with limited or non-existent production at the plate from their shortstop. The Marlins catchers are also critical to their success this week. The key hits Ramon Castro came up with against the Phillies in Miami will likely be needed again once or twice this weekend.

Production or the lack thereof from a left fielder is shaping up to be potentially the Marlins biggest hole this season. Jeff Conine, a traditional slow starter (that little phrase seems to be as much a part of his name as the “rocker” part is of Rocker Tommy Lee), looks old at the plate and in the field. His backup, Abraham Nunez, is not a young rookie (27) but is still unproven. Nunez has many supporters though, particularly after a strong performance this spring, but that came against suspect talent and more importantly, Nunez has never produced in the majors when it counts. Maybe he will. We know that Conine has, but the question there is whether those days are behind him or not.

Outfield production will be an interesting area to watch with the Marlins this year, particularly if they are able to stay in contention through July and if a team like the White Sox or Royals falters by then. Should that happen, the Sox’ Magglio Ordonez or the Royals’ Carlos Beltran may find themselves on the trading block. Being able to acquire a big bat like that would be a huge coup for the Marlins, particularly since the Red Sox, Yankees, and other big budget teams would surely be interested if those players were available for the stretch drive (despite the fact that both will be eligible for free agency as soon as the World Series concludes).

All in all it should be another fun week of baseball. Possibly by the end of the week we’ll have a better idea of where the contenders in the National League East are headed… or we may just have a group of teams muddled together somewhere around .500.

Don’t forget – fun and excitement returns for the Marlins tonight as Dontrelle Willis takes the hill in Philadelphia. If everything keeps going according to schedule, Willis should be back on the mound on Sunday against the Braves (and if you’re not in Miami or otherwise can’t attend, that game will be on ESPN – look for me in the stands).


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