If you have a bad feeling about the nascent Marlins series, well, you're not alone. Already beside myself with a sense of dread as I contemplated what Dontrelle Willis might do to our hobbled and anemic lineup, I found it ironic that Mike from Fish Stripes, the Marlins entry on the Sports Blogs network, has expressed reservations about his team's readiness to play the series.
'Course, I think he's being overly paranoid, and that if he truly knew how poorly the Astros have been playing offensively, he'd relax, but more on that later.
What is important here, though, is that both Mike and I were able to get away from our pre-series kvetching to exchange questions on the state of the respective teams as they come into this huge series.
So, check it out, Fish Stripes is one of the best there is on the network, and Mike is perceptive as usual:
CFB: I can ask this 'coz the Astros haven't lost to the Phillies since the middle of 2003, but why the problems with Philly lately? The Marlins took six of the first nine, but with yesterday's whitewash, Philly has now won 5 of the last 7, and they've dropped double digits on the Fish four times in those seven games. Any deeper meaning there?
FS: It's really unusual. In 2003 (13-6) and 2004 (12-7) the Marlins pretty much owned the Phillies. In 2003 in particular, it felt like the Marlins won all the games that counted (or that they at least won all of the games that took place later in the season).
This year's "problem" is more a timing issue than anything. For all of the talk about the Marlins great starting pitching, it's really just the Dontrelle Willis Show that they're offering right now. Beckett and Burnett have been (at best) inconsistent and it's been a revolving door for the fourth and fifth spots throughout the second half. Since the Marlins haven't really hit consistently for the entire season, I think that's the difference against the Phillies of late: less dependable starting pitching.
CFB: OK. Saw that Cabrera and Delgado did the 100 RBI thing the other day. So you know they can be a factor at any time. But other than them, who do you think is most likely to be a factor down the stretch? Is there a secret weapon lurking?
FS: There are a few potential weapons to be a secret weapon. One is Jeremy Hermida (who came up just before September 1st, so he could be on the playoff roster). He hit a grand slam in his first major league at bat (he was pinch-hitting), but since then he hasn't gotten a whole lot of opportunities. He's very young (and a high school friend of Jeff Francoeur's), but he's pretty well developed. Hermida brings power, speed, and plate discipline (nearly twice as many walks as strikeouts in the minors) - plus an above average glove/arm in the outfield.
After that, it's pretty much time to cross your fingers and hope. I think most Marlin fans are hoping that Mike Lowell (now relegated to bench duty), Alex Gonzalez (who sometimes seems to play without a glove - despite his Gold Glove-like reputation in the field) and/or Juan Pierre (who, except for short spurts, just hasn't been himself) will turn into the 2003 (or even 2004) version of themselves. None of them is very old and there doesn't seem to be an injury issue - so there isn't an explanation for their downturns that just jumps out at you. If one of those guys steps up and gets hot for the last few weeks, that could provide the Marlins with a huge spark.
CFB: Forget Dontrelle Willis for a moment, 'cause he's been obviously dynamite, and lately, too. But Jason Vargas has lost two straight, AJ Burnett has lost four straight, and Beckett is only 1 - 2 in his last four. I'll assume you expect Dontrelle to pitch well. But who else do you expect to throw well in this big series?
FS: Honestly, no one (other than Willis). My expectations are pretty low at this point. Beckett is pitching through an injury, so it's tough to expect too much out of him. There was some talk the other night that Vargas might get skipped, but that's hard to imagine, as it would mean that Jason Johnson would get his first major league start in this huge series.
A.J. Burnett is the one guy who "should" pitch better, but I'm not counting on it. A.J. has talked (publicly) about how he's found it difficult to focus of late. His excuse has been that he's frustrated with the defense being played behind him and wtih coaching decisions (but hey - we all get frustrated with Jack from time-to-time). I can't believe that's happening to a free-agent-to-be.
CFB: If I understand the subtext of this season, it is that--even with this finishing playoff kick the Marlins have shown--Jack McKeon has become a liability with his decision making and his leadership style. Staying away from the unquestioned fact that a manager should remember his player's name, can you think of any games where a loopy decision by McKeon lost a game for the Fish? Can you think of any where it WON one for you?
FS: In the second game of the year (http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/recap?gameId=250406128) the Marlins lost 2-1 to the Braves in extra innings. At the time, I remember talking about how it would be a shame if that game came back to haunt the Marlins. It's starting to look like it might. In the bottom of the 10th of that game Juan Pierre bunted into a double play. Prior to that little disaster, Damion Easley was on second. Pierre's bunt attempt (even if it had been successful) wouldn't have accomplished much.
Jack would tell you that he isn't to blame for that mistake - as he has claimed publicly that he doesn't call most of the Marlins bunts. My take on the matter is that makes it Jack's fault. If Juan Pierre isn't smart enough to know not to bunt in that situation, Jack needs to make sure to tell him not to. In this case, it cost the Fish a ballgame.
That said, Jack has made a number of moves that may have caused the Fish to win the game. Jack is very unconventional. Without giving a specific example (as I'd hate to give Jack the credit), there have been at least a handful of games where Jack has juggled the lineup when the Fish were in a bit of a funk. Quite often it seems, those lineup changes have worked (for instance, electing to bat Jeff Conine second). Jack usually sticks with those unusual lineups until the Marlins lose (and coming off of Sunday's ugly loss in Philly, we could see something really out there on Monday night).
CFB: Let's assume that the Marlins pull out the Wild Card. Why would the Marlins go on to represent the NL in the World Series? Why WOULDN'T they?
FS: If the Marlins win the Wild Card, they absolutely could reach the World Series. Their starting pitching has to scare everyone in the NL. Willis has been great all year and Burnett and Beckett back him up with a lot of power. In the playoffs, Jack will stick with them for long outings and that will narrow the gap between when a big-time starter is in the game and when Todd Jones comes in to close it out.
In addition to the pitching, the Marlins lineup is pretty fierce, at least on paper. Carlos Delgado and Miguel Cabrera have lived up to expectations throughout the year. After that, the names are at least impressive - even if their 2005 stats aren't.
But, the Marlins are probably as likely to be swept in the LDS as they are to win the World Series this year. They have been nothing if inconsistent. When they pitch well, they don't hit well. When they hit well, the pitching doesn't show up. It's been painful. The talent is there on this team. They just haven't hit on all cylinders for any extended period of time.
Pretty insightful, huh? We're very pleased to publish Mike's comments, and are basically out of our skulls with gratitude that Mike has chosen to help us out.
I'll publish my typically rambling and incoherent responses to his questions a bit later.