In My Opinion

Greg Cote: Just call the Miami Marlins the Merlins because they’re magic

 

gcote@ MiamiHerald.com

It’s funny how in sports there are varying ways to see Fortune .500. The Dolphins go 8-8 and it’s unfortunate. It gets the general manager gone and leaves fans empty. It feels like losing. But the Marlins get back up to even and fans feel as if they’ve hit the lottery. The climb is fulfilling. It feels like winning.

Miami’s baseball club had won six games in a row and nine of the past 10 heading into Wednesday’s home matinee against Washington, breathing life into a sagging season. A sweep of the NL East-leading Nationals would have drawn the Marlins within four games of the division lead, and even closer in the wild-card hunt. Instead, the 4-3 loss meant an opportunity wasted. Some helium escaped the rising balloon.

You can’t take your eyes off the Marlins lately, though. Even Wednesday, they’re down by three run entering the ninth, then Giancarlo Stanton clubs his 24th home run, then Adeiny Hechavarria ropes a run-scoring double, and two are on when finally the Nats escape.

They’ve had a touch of miracle Marlins of late. Call them the Merlins, because there’s been some magic around here.

“I really envisioned us tying that game up,” manager Mike Redmond said. “Somebody else getting another big hit … .”

That is what confidence sounds like.

“Till the last out, man,” Stanton said. “We have it in us. We can fight through it.”

The buoyant crowd of 26,319 didn’t so much mirror playoff fever; it was largely the result of thousands of mostly preteen summer campers who arrived by the busloads, giving the enclosed ballpark a shrill, excited cacophony not unlike that of an aviary at feeding time.

There was too much quiet at the final out, but one streak-ending loss needn’t change much moving forward. Not if the Marlins of the past couple of weeks were real. We’ll begin now to find out if the team has had its run and is done, or if the Fish have some fight left in them.

The window is still wide open. Heat fans are bereaving the loss of LeBron James. Meaningful football is still a month away. August arrives as a wonderful opening for the Marlins — too often too easy to ignore — to earn our collective attention. They almost have it now, half by default and half on recent merit. But can they hold it?

It will take something almost unheard of in South Florida, something we are being teased with but that still is not quite in our grasp.

It’s called a playoff race.

All know the Marlins, in their 22nd season, have made the postseason only twice, in 1997 and 2003, both times as a wild-card and each time ending up as World Series champions. What bears noting is that, in the other 19 seasons entering this one, we have never really experienced a bonafide, edge-of-seat, check-the-standings-every-day playoff race.

Two or three weeks ago, the Fish were dead in the water, white-belly-up. Gradually they moved to the far periphery of playoff contention, though still a dot on the horizon. Now they are close enough that you don’t need binoculars to see them. They are in the hunt and in the conversation.

This was not supposed to happen. The Marlins’ season was supposed to implode after pitching ace Jose Fernandez was lost for the season to Tommy John surgery. Come August, Miami baseball fans were supposed to be bored to disinterest.

Instead, the Marlins lead the league in one-run wins with 24. Monday’s rally from a 6-0 hole to a 7-6 victory marked the club’s eighth walk-off win. Stanton, at any moment, is liable to hit a ball so hard that it punches a hole in the retractable roof, soars over downtown like a meteor and lands in Biscayne Bay.

This is an exciting little team.

It also is one built to grow, and be better down the road.

Six of Wednesday’s nine starters were 26 or younger. Everyone on the pitching staff is under 30.

Maybe nothing can keep the centerpiece Stanton a Marlin long-term. Maybe his going home to the West Coast is as inevitable as LeBron returning to Cleveland apparently was.

If there is any shot, though, the best chance is this — what we are seeing from the Marlins lately.

Fun. Fight. Excitement. Hope. Winning.

And commitment.

We’ll see about the latter as the MLB trade deadline hits Thursday.

The Marlins should be buyers, not sellers, if they are players at all before the deadline. The team is close enough to try to make a push, not to wave a white flag.

More than the fight left in this season is at stake.

Marlins ownership and management must prove to oft-disillusioned fans — and, yes, to Stanton — that the club is committed to building and to winning, not to always letting budget constraints rule decision-making. Trading closer Steve Cishek (as an example) would send an awful message.

Miami must build on the momentum of the past couple of weeks, and then keep building.

The Marlins need to get to the stage where winning is the routine. Where one nice little winning streak doesn’t stand out for its rarity, and where the climb to .500 isn’t the stuff of celebration.

Read more Greg Cote stories from the Miami Herald

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