Marlins fans — the most admirably resilient of them who still allow themselves to believe and to dream, despite it all — had a particularly hopeful night here Monday, after a hopeful month.
Pitcher Jose Fernandez, 20, a baby, offered more cause to see him as a legitimate No. 1 starter, maybe a big star. At an age when most young arms are toiling in the low minors, he was striking out 10 Padres in a masterful eight-inning, two-hit, shutout performance.
His biggest challenge was trying to avoid manager Mike Redmond after eight innings in hopes of wrangling a complete game.
“I walked to [the] other side of the dugout,” the kid said. “But I knew.”
Center fielder Marcell Ozuna, 22, another budding star seeing his future fast-tracked, would slap the RBI single that broke the scoreless tie, lifting his average to .300 and his team to a 4-0 win.
If this were a normal big-league city with an ownership that believed young talent was meant for keeping, you could look at Fernandez and Ozuna as cornerstones, as guys who might spend their entire careers as Marlins, and become enduring fan favorites.
And they would have company, including established slugger Giancarlo Stanton, 23. Six Miami starters Monday were 25 or younger. It is the kids who have led this resurgence, this 17-10 record since May 31 and now 8-2 the past 10 games.
This was in so many ways a perfect night for Marlins baseball. The usual disappointing crowd of 14,669 even sounded much bigger because it had so much to cheer. It was a night that made the future look bright … if only you could be sure this ownership wouldn’t sell or trade away that future for a new, cheaper version of itself.
It was a night that suggested a future that would be promising … if only past broken promises hadn’t left fans to wonder if anything will be different this time moving forward.
Fernandez, Jacob Turner, Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez give Miami four promising starting pitchers, all young and ascending. Wouldn’t it be great to nurture them, pay them and keep them?
Fernandez clearly is the ace, the gem, the one guy they should want to keep long-term as an absolute priority, right along with Stanton. Fernandez is from Santa Clara, Cuba. He defected here in 2008, on his fourth try. He is living the quintessential Miami dream. He could grow, here, into what Fernando Valenzuela was in Los Angeles once. Something somehow bigger than baseball.
The kid is so engaging, so right for this market.
Most starting pitchers keep to themselves between innings. This one is the opposite.
“This guy is walking around, talking to everybody,” said Redmond, smiling. “He’s young and exciting. He’s like a little kid out there.”
Now it is up to the Marlins and this owner to conjure the vision, the commitment and willingness, to start keeping guys like Fernandez beyond their initial contracts, not deal them to bigger spenders for yet more inexpensive prospects.
“We understand the asset we have,” the club’s baseball-ops man, Larry Beinfest, says of Fernandez.
The problem with this franchise hasn’t been a lack of understanding that. The problem has been not understanding that there cannot be a constant recycling and starting over. There must be an endgame. At some point you must make a high-dollar commitment to keep the Fernandezes and Stantons and Ozunas.
That the Pirates own the best record in baseball is another indication that big spending alone is an unreliable predictor of success — which is not the same as saying that excuses chronic under-spending of the Loria-esque variety.
What the Marlins need is to reach a point of franchise maturity where fans trust that the club will spend what is necessary to keep its rising young stars rather than the constant debilitating turnover of talent.
Stanton could be a lost cause.
“It takes two,” club president David Samson reminded us, correctly.
Miami could make Stanton a market-competitive offer or even better, but if the player is determined to use free agency after the 2016 season to play on the West Coast, it would only be good business for Miami to trade him before then.
You cannot continue to not keep guys like Miguel Cabrera and Stanton, though. At some point you must commit to the future and stop torturing your fans with constant rudderless direction.
We’ll see if this owner begins to earn back the public trust with this newest wave of young talent.
Meantime, give the Marlins credit. Redmond and these players started the season 13-41, sub-abysmal, but are now winning some respectability back. Good for them.
“The team we thought we’d have, we’re just really putting it together now. Now we’re having some fun,” Redmond told me the other day. “It’s so great to see guys smile and enjoy it. You walk in a 1 o’clock now and the music’s on and guys are having fun and you can feel that confidence. It’s great just to see the guys shaking hands again after games.”
The best little moment of this Marlins resurgence, the one that sticks with Redmond, came three weeks ago in New York. You remember that marathon 20-inning win over the Mets? This was the very next night, when Miami won in 10 innings.
It was a moment Redmond didn’t see. He only heard it. Felt it.
The go-ahead run scored on an error, and over Redmond’s shoulder in the dugout bloomed a sudden sound. You’d have thought it was a playoff Game 7. The noise was the unfettered aural joy you hear from 11-year-olds playing for nothing but love of game.
“I remember hearing how excited guys were on the bench. Hearing that enthusiasm,” Redmond said. “I thought, ‘Man, this is it! This is what we’re talking about. This is what we’re going to get to.”
The Marlins seem to have a nucleus strong enough to make that happen, to win back lost fans and build a future.
But do they have an owner ready to commit to that nucleus and that future? The question won’t go away until Jeffrey Loria makes it.