Thursday morning, I was on the air on KZNE in College Station, Tex. The gig is a special one for me, as it’s the longest-running radio gig I have. Gary Huckabay and I have been going on with Louie Belina for nearly four years now, and when you have that kind of history and rapport with a host, it makes for a fun segment.

Anyway, Louie asked me about the NL wild-card chase, first wanting to know if the Astros were really in it (I said I didn’t think so, with so many teams in front of them and the Cubs playing a schedule that even Bill Snyder wouldn’t have approved) and then which of the teams ahead of them would end up taking the playoff spot (those same Cubs, with the Giants and Padres coming up short).

Not once did I refer to a hurricane-battered state or a fish.

If this looks familiar, you’ve been paying attention. A year ago around this time, I didn’t think the Marlins were a threat to win the wild card, favoring the Phillies for the last NL playoff spot. The Marlins pounded the Phillies head-to-head to win the wild card going away, then beat up the defending NL champs, the fan favorites, and the Team With a Bajillion-Dollar Payroll to end up as champions.

No, I’m not stubborn. Why do you ask?

The 2004 edition of the Marlins is less impressive than the ’03 version. The lineup has suffered key downgrades at catcher and first base, picking up ground only in whichever corner spot Miguel Cabrera happens to be be standing. Declines by the middle infield, Luis Castillo and Alex Gonzalez, have cost them runs as well. The Marlins’ team EqA of .261 is six points lower than their 2003 mark of .261. In a league in which offense is up, they’re scoring slightly fewer runs per game (4.5, as opposed to 4.6 last year). The pitching hasn’t made up for that deficit, allowing 4.5 runs a game, slightly above last year’s mark of 4.32, in line with the uptick in league offense.

Despite the perception that the Marlins are loaded with great young pitching, their rotation hasn’t been very impressive. Their best starter has been journeyman Carl Pavano, having a career year in his his seventh major-league season. Dontrelle Willis is the only other Marlins’ starter who has qualified for the ERA title; he’s been a good mid-rotation guy, but not a star. A.J. Burnett and Josh Beckett have combined for 37 starts with a 3.98 ERA, far from the kind of dominance anticipated from the duo. They traded away their best starter, Brad Penny, to shore up the catching spot and add bullpen help, a deal that did both but didn’t make the team much better.

As they did last year, the Marlins have remade their bullpen on the fly. Remember Ugueth Urbina and Chad Fox pitching well last October? Neither was in the Marlins’ organization at last year’s All-Star break. Similarly, adding Guillermo Mota, Rudy Seanez and Billy Koch this year has given the Fish a reasonable reliable late-inning unit, all in support of Armando Benitez‘s comeback season (1.06 ERA in 59 1/3 innings). The bullpen has evolved into a strength.

Overall, it’s just not an impressive team. The Marlins have an average offense, an average pitching staff and a good defense (third in the NL in Defensive Efficiency). They’re slightly outplaying their projected record, mostly on the basis of scoring more and allowing fewer runs than their underlying performance would project, but they’re not as far ahead as the Giants and Padres are. They have Jack McKeon, who pushed all the right buttons last year and has yet to do anything this year that would make you question his savvy.

If they’re so unimpressive, how are they in the race? The slightly lowered standards have helped: the Marlins are playing .530 ball, and the wild-card leader is at .549. Last year, the Fish won the slot with a 91-71 record, a .562 percentage. It’s possible that, unless the Cubs take advantage of the nicest September since Earth, Wind and Fire’s, this year’s NL wild-card team won’t have 90 wins. Remember, the wild-card isn’t about being good, but being good enough.

The fact is, I was wrong to not include them with the wild-card contenders. In a pool with five flawed teams, the Marlins’ edges on defense and in the dugout are more than enough for us to take them seriously. While the Cubs have an easy schedule, the Marlins may have something better: six games with the Phillies, against whom they’ve won 23 of their last 26 matchups. You can argue that Burnett and Beckett, who haven’t pitched to their peak this season, give the Fish a chance to make a big run based on getting seven great innings almost every night. They’ll have to do it with pitching, because the offense isn’t good enough to carry them.

Most critically, the Marlins have exactly what they had last September: their fate in their own hands. Of their remaining 30 games, six will come against the Cubs, some as part of makeup games after Hurricane Frances wiped out last weekend’s series in Miami. Just as they did last year, the Marlins will have the opportunity to beat their closest competition on the field.

The Marlins swept the Phillies in the last week of 2003 to win the wild card. If they can do something similar, starting this weekend in Chicago, they’ll have yet another chance to shock the world.

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