Jeffrey Loria threw the down the gauntlet at the beginning of spring training, putting the pressure squarely on his manager. The Marlins' owner said his team had all the ammunition necessary to make the playoffs, and that he would be highly disappointed if it didn't get to the postseason for the first time since the franchise's surprising run to a World Series title since 2003.

In many respects, that was the beginning of the end for Fredi Gonzalez as the club's skipper. The Marlins had reason to think the postseason was a possibility after finishing 87-75 last season, but any team with a payroll of $57 million, the fifth-lowest in the major leagues, can't seriously consider printing playoff tickets in February.

The ax fell on Gonzalez on Wednesday. The Marlins were 34-36 at the time, and Loria felt he needed to make a change in an attempt to salvage the season. In contrast, the Marlins' players took the news hard. Gonzalez was a popular figure in the clubhouse, in part because of his easy-going nature, though he also showed a hard edge earlier this season when he benched star shortstop Hanley Ramirez earlier this season for failing to hustle.

"I feel like we let him down," rookie first baseman Gaby Sanchez said.

The Marlins have underperformed their Pythagorean record more than any team in the major leagues at -3.4. That has been mostly the result of spotty relief pitching as the Marlins are 25th in the majors. Ten different relievers have posted a negative WXRL this season, including three still on the active roster. After splitting a pair of games with the Orioles following Gonzalez's firing, the Marlins are in fourth place in the National League East, 6 ½ games behind the division-leading Braves.

It appears certain that it will be Bobby Valentine's task to straighten out the bullpen and try to get the Marlins into contention. Valentine, currently an analyst with ESPN, is scheduled to meet with Loria and other high-ranking Marlins officials today. The sides have already reportedly agreed to the framework of a four-year contract. The friendship between Loria and Valentine stretches back to the late 1980s, when Valentine managed the Rangers and Loria owned their Triple-A Oklahoma City affiliate. Loria and Valentine had conversations about the Marlins' job at the end of last season before Loria decided to bring Gonzalez back for a fourth season. Valentine managed for 15 seasons in the major leagues with the Rangers (1985-92) and Mets (1996-2002), and also spent seven years managing the Chiba Lotte Marines in the Japanese Pacific League.

Edwin Rodriguez, manager of the Marlins' Triple-A New Orleans farm club, is serving as interim manager. Though Rodriguez realizes he is likely to be a short-timer, he is concentrating on building up the relievers' self-esteem, stating, "It's a matter of trying to get the confidence back in them. Trying to get them to believe in themselves. They need to prove that they belong here."

It was ironic that the Marlins fired Gonzalez while they were in Baltimore, because his dismissal had an immediate impact on the Orioles' manager search, as Valentine quickly withdrew from consideration for that job. Valentine had interviewed with Orioles owner Peter Angelos and president Andy MacPhail on June 11.

The Orioles have also interviewed two other former major-league managers, Eric Wedge and Buck Showalter, as potential replacements for the fired Dave Trembley. Former Orioles catcher Rick Dempsey, now an analyst on the club's telecasts, will also be interviewed. Interim manager Juan Samuel is also expected to get an interview at some point.

Gonzalez immediately becomes a prime candidate to succeed the retiring Bobby Cox as the Braves' manager at the end of this season. Gonzalez was the Braves' third-base coach before being hired by the Marlins, and is a favorite of Cox and general manager Frank Wren. Wren declined to comment on Gonzalez's firing, staying consistent with his stance that he will not talk about the subject of Cox's successor until after the season. However, Cox made it clear that he felt Gonzalez got a raw deal form Loria, observing, "That owner is very unpredictable. I don't think that owner realizes what Fredi's done for him. Nobody really wants to work for an owner like that. Fredi'll be better off."

The team on Florida's other coast, the Rays, have been struggling since a torrid start. The Rays have lost 17 of their last 28 games, blowing a six-game lead in the American League East in the process, as they are tied with the Red Sox for second in the division, two games behind the Yankees. Thus, first baseman Carlos Pena felt it was time to call a players-only meeting on Wednesday night.

"It was just appropriate," Pena said. "We could ignore it and not pay attention to it. Or we could face it and all of sudden you diffuse the bomb. You kind of like shrink the giant. Yeah, you see his shadow, but when you actually look at it you're like, you know what, who cares guys? We're right there, let's play ball. But if we just ignore it, the next thing you know it might become bigger than it really is. When you face it, you're like we're right there, everything is right where we want it to be, let's go play. It just makes it real, instead of that illusion of, oh my God, the world is ending. No, it's not. We're fine."

Pena said the thrust of his message was for the Rays to keep playing the kind of baseball that made them so successful early in the season. He also stressed that the Rays should not get caught up in the idea that they could have a great season and still wind up sitting at home in October as no more than two of the three AL East powerhouses can qualify for the postseason.

"I just wanted to remind the team or bring that point out so we all get back onto the same page and pull the rope in the same direction and not allow all the outside distractions to put extra pressure on ourselves or to take us off course from what we do," Pena said. "Because if we are just ourselves, everything takes care of itself."

The Blue Jays have been one of the game's biggest surprises this season with their 39-34 record. However, that is only good for fourth place in the AL East as they trail the Yankees by 6 ½ games.

Thus, at this point, it is hard to tell what direction the Blue Jays might take when the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline nears. First-year GM Alex Anthopoulos could be looking for help or he might be looking to sell off some players, notably closer Kevin Gregg and set-up reliever Jason Frasor, while right fielder/third baseman Jose Bautista could also be in play.

This was supposed to be a developmental year for the Blue Jays. However, the starting pitching has matured more rapidly than expected, allowing them to stay within sight of the division's top teams.

"That's why I make such an effort, and I've done a better job at it each successive year, just to stay even keel about it," Anthopoulos said of trying to get a read on his team. "It's easier to do when you've played well. I try not to make too much of anything, one way or the other. It's too long a season and things change. You might lose five in a row and think you're in the middle of a downslide, and then things pick right back up and some other teams in front of you slide."

Anthopoulos, though, is adamant that he will not stray from the Blue Jays' building plan. Thus, he won't give into the temptation of trading part of the future to aid what realistically would be a longshot playoff push.

"There are certain areas where we are committed long term to some position players, but there are always areas to upgrade," Anthopoulos said. "We'd have to be close at that time, and I hope that we are. It's still another five weeks away from that point."

MLB Rumors and Rumblings: Mariners left-hander Cliff Lee is at the top of the Mets' wish list, as they like the idea he can become a free agent at the end of the season. That's a consideration in contrast to what comes with trading for Astros right-hander Roy Oswalt, because Houston's ace is signed through 2011 and has about $25 million left on his contract. … The Reds are considering calling up highly touted left-hander Aroldis Chapman from Triple-A and using him as a reliever to help an erratic bullpen. … The Orioles plan to give newly-acquired Jake Fox some starts at catcher so that former top prospect Matt Wieters can see more time at designated hitter and concentrate on regaining his hitting stroke. … The Cardinals are ramping up their pursuit of a starting pitcher as they tentatively plan to start long reliever Blake Hawksworth on Saturday against the Royals. … Overloaded with outfielders, the Athletics are willing to trade Coco Crisp.