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When I listed the teams still in the NL playoff race yesterday I stopped at the Cardinals; they are 4½ games out in the wild-card race, on a five-game losing streak, just got swept by the Pirates, and have zero games left against the four teams ahead of them. I can’t see a path short of a 12-1 run that gets them to October, and that 12-1 run doesn’t seem to be in this team.

By stopping at the Cardinals, though, I never did take a look at the Marlins, or at least not until last night. Mathematically they look even worse: being 5½ games back in the wild-card chase gives them a 1-in-600 shot at the wild card, and a 1-in-250 shot at the postseason. The key difference between them and the Cardinals, however, is the next six games on the schedule. Whereas the Cards don’t have any chance to go head-to-head with the teams in front of them, the Fish will play six straight at home against the Astros and Phillies this week. They don’t completely control their own destiny-the Brewers will be playing other teams, and have a lot of games to make up-but there’s something to be said for being in the race with two weeks to play and having six games against teams you’re chasing. The numbers say they’re done, but as we saw in Philadelphia this weekend, the Playoff Odds Report can change radically when contenders play against each other.

Like the Astros, the Marlins have been outscored on the season, so their 77-72 mark is slightly inflated. While we associate teams that have strong bullpens, like the Angels, with the ability to post a record better than expected by runs scored and runs allowed, the Marlins’ pen isn’t notably special, and the team hasn’t been great in close games. A 24-18 mark in one-run games is a bit better than expected, but the team is 15-17 in two-run games and 8-10 in three-run games, so there’s no pattern of playing well in close contests. They do have a poor record in blowouts-2-8 in games decided by more than seven runs, for a -58 differential.

I think that’s where you find the reason the Marlins are still in this race. The Marlins suffered eight blowout losses before the All-Star break, and none since. Four of those eight games were started by Andrew Miller, two others by Rusty Tucker and Mark Hendrickson; none of those three pitchers are in the current Marlins’ rotation, and none have started a game for them since July 13. If you judge the Marlins’ rotation by an aggregate stat, it doesn’t look good, but the current Marlins’ rotation, the one that’s been in place since July 27, is actually effective-a vast improvement on what came before it. Take a look at the three new faces, as compared to the pitchers they more or less replaced:


Starter           GS     IP     RA   SNLVAR
Josh Johnson      12   76.1   3.30     2.6
Chris Volstad     11   63.1   3.55     2.2
Anibal Sanchez     9   46.0   6.26     0.2

Andrew Miller     20  100.2   6.35     0.3
Mark Hendrickson  19  101.0   6.77    -0.2
Burke Badenhop     8   38.2   7.22    -0.4
Ryan Tucker        6   29.0   8.38    -0.5
Rick Vanden Hurk   4   14.0   7.71     0.2

The Marlins used unready and unworthy pitchers such as Miller, Tucker, and Badenhop to patch the rotation until Johnson and Sanchez (two of the heroes of 2006) and former first-round pick Volstad were ready to contribute. Sanchez has not pitched well, but even he’s allowed fewer runs per nine innings than the best of the five starters no longer in the rotation. The upgrade to Johnson and Volstad, as opposed to Miller and Hendrickson, has been worth about four wins just in the two months that they’ve been around. The two entered the rotation on consecutive days, July 10 and 11. On July 9, the Marlins were 47-44; they’re 30-28 since.

Now, that shouldn’t sound like much, but let’s go back to what I wrote coming out of the All-Star break:

The Marlins took two of three from the Phillies this week, and every time it looks like they’re going to fall back from the leaders, they win a series. I don’t see how they sustain this-their pitching staff is pretty bad, and it puts a lot of balls in play in front of a lousy defense. I expect them to give up more than 300 runs the rest of the way, and their power, though impressive, won’t be enough to overcome that, or their OBP issues. The Marlins will finish in fourth.

The Marlins had already taken a big step towards preventing that from happening just a week prior, by putting Johnson and Volstad in the starting rotation. I just missed it, and because I did, I missed that the Marlins were going to be better at run prevention than they had been in the first half. They’ve allowed 232 runs since the All-Star break, just 4.3 per game, and nearly a run per game fewer than they allowed beforehand. That is largely, though not entirely, due to Johnson and Volstad. This is now a league-average rotation, maybe slightly better than that, and all five guys are under control for 2009.

Some random performances out of the bullpen have helped them as well. Joe Nelson came out of nowhere to put up a 2.64 RA in 47 2/3 innings, and Doug Waechter has thrown 63 innings with a 4.14 RA; neither pitched in the majors last season. The trade-deadline deal that brought in Arthur Rhodes has worked beautifully; the veteran lefty has not allowed a run in 20 appearances, and in just 11 1/3 innings is the third-best Marlins reliever by WXRL, which is a counting stat. His performance in his six weeks in Florida has been excellent.

The Marlins improved their pitching staff at midseason, enabling them to get through the inevitable decline of their offense, which is also off its first-half pace by nearly a run per game. That has helped them to maintain a slightly-above .500 pace-they’ve scored 235 and allowed 232 runs in the second half-and puts them in position, with two weeks to go, to be this year’s Rockies.

Can they do it? Well, taking at least five of six this week is the only way they can even think about winning the wild card, and six of six would be better still. Tonight may, in fact, be the decisive game of their season, as they face the recently untouchable Roy Oswalt. They’ll have the better starter in each of the next two games, but a loss tonight will put them in a very bad spot. Against the Phillies, they do miss Cole Hamels, but catch the new and improved Brett Myers with their own ace, Johnson, on Friday.

The Marlins are the furthest back of any team you can still consider a contender, but because of the way the schedule falls-and because of the mid-season improvements to their rotation-they go into the season’s last 13 days with as much control over their own chance to make the playoffs as any team 5½ back could ever hope to have. You can never see a 2007 Rockies coming, but if there’s one team left with a chance to make that kind of history, it’s the Marlins.

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Vyse0wnz
9/17
Why are you trying so hard to create a storyline around what the 07 Rockies did? We know it was flukish, we know it\'s rathr impossible to be replicated, and we don\'t need it rehashed. I don\'t mean this to sound negative -- I love your work -- but it just seems a little uninspired.
jsheehan
9/17
One of the most common questions I\'ve been asked this month on radio shows is \"Which team could be this year\'s Rockies?\" The idea is out there. Anyway, that\'s a tangential point. The story here is the Marlins, mostly written off, having six games--five, after tonight\'s win--that could put them in position for a great comeback story. Forget the Rockies; the Marlins\' story stands on its own. There are some highly entertaining baseball games being played tonight.
saigonsam
9/18
An entire article about Marlins pitchers without mentioning Nolasco? He has to be one of the top pitchers in the NL since June. I think the Marlins are one of the most interesting franchises in sports. The media bashes them year after year, but if you count success as winning championships, they have done it twice in the last 10 yrs. How many other teams have won that many in fewer?