The Florida Marlins are off to the best start in club history, Josh Johnson is pitching like a Cy Young winner and Anibal Sanchez is threatening to re-visit No-Hitter Land. A lot is going right for the Marlins, and it couldn't be coming at a better time. This summer isn't just about this summer for Florida. With a new stadium set to open in 2012, these aren't your typical cut-rate Marlins. They need to stir interest and sell tickets and bring a strong product into their new ballpark to set a solid foundation.
This isn't to say the Marlins are looking to flex their financial muscle. But they're definitely looking to win, and behind Johnson, Sanchez and Ricky Nolasco, they've got three starters going in the right direction. And, in Leo Nunez, they've got one closer consistently nailing things down.
Three thoughts on the Marlins as they tangle with Philadelphia this week:
1. Johnson is incorporating a slower curve with the help of Marlins pitching coach Randy St. Claire in an effort to work deeper into games. He's thrown more than 200 innings in his career just once, in 2009, and both Johnson and the Marlins would like to get him to that level consistently. Already, he throws a fastball, slider, sinker and change-up. With a fastball that already kills at 94, 95 m.p.h., the curve that is clocked around 77, 78 is leaving hitters with little chance.
2. The Marlins are off to their best start with All-Star Hanley Ramirez off to one of his worst, which bodes well for them for later this summer. Because, as one scout says, "Hanley will hit. He always hits." The man who has hit the most home runs of any major-league shortstop since 2006 started the season with none in his first 23 games. He's currently hitting just .195 with one homer and 13 RBI. While the Marlins wait, first baseman and team leader Gaby Sanchez, plugs along as one of the game's most underrated players.
3. Without question, the biggest difference in this year's Marlins is at the back end of games. Florida's bullpen is second in the NL with a 2.59 ERA. Last year's Marlins ranked ninth in the league with a 4.01 ERA and ninth in saves (39). This year, Nunez's 11 saves (the Marlins' total) are tied for third in the NL. Brian Sanches, Randy Choate and Ryan Webb have been instrumental in the improvement.
-- The Marlins are expected to pursue a third baseman at some point this summer, but veteran Greg Dobbs has been outstanding there in the wake of the fractured elbow prospect Matt Dominguez suffered late in spring training. Dobbs' steady glove and .359 batting average and .411 on-base percentage have eased some of the Marlins' pain.
-- One scout, who was in Seattle for this weekend's White Sox-Mariners series, on Milton Bradley being designated for assignment Monday: "He was going through the motions. Good for Jack [Zduriecik, Mariners' general manager]."
-- Among the reasons to believe Cleveland is for real: On Monday, the Indians' +48 run differential was best in the majors. Next-closest in the American League: The Yankees, at +38. Next-closest in baseball: St. Louis at +44, followed by the Phillies, who were even with the Yanks at +38.
-- Those watching closely the final two months of last season know that Cleveland right-hander Justin Masterson's 5-0 start is no fluke. Masterson's 2.86 ERA from Aug. 4 through season's end in 2010 ranked ninth in the AL. Currently, his 2.11 ERA is fifth in the AL. "The last six weeks last year, he was able to repeat his delivery more often," Indians manager Manny Acta says. Part of that is, pitching coach Tim Belcher has helped him institute a series of checkpoints in his windup and deliver, which allows the 6-6 Masterson to be more efficient at making in-game adjustments. It's also allowed Masterson to reduce his walks. Over 47 innings pitched this year, he has 34 strikeouts and just 13 walks.
-- One scout on the Cubs: "They have no speed, and not much power."
-- The Padres have been shut out a stunning eight times in 34 games, twice as much as anybody else (the Nationals, Red Sox, White Sox and Athletics each has been shut out four times). Indications are, Petco Park is getting in the heads of newcomers like Brad Hawpe (signed over the winter) and Ryan Ludwick (acquired at last July's trading deadline) and others.
-- Pirates manager Clint Hurdle on Petco, where he's also managed several games as Colorado's skipper: "I think the worst damage it did when it was first built was to the home team. There was wailing and gnashing of teeth you could hear from across the other side when this thing was first built. I think it's been tinkered with since. I think perception is so huge in this game. The first thing hitters look for are flags and distances. Actually, I just try and get them focused saying, 'Look at all that grass out there. There's room for all kinds of hits. Let's focus on that.'"
-- More Hurdle on Petco Park: "I've got to believe if you put Tony Gwynn in here, you know what? He'd get a lot of hits in here. I do believe that, unfortunately, there's this thing called the male ego, and if that number's big out there [on the outfield fence] and you think, 'I’m still going to hit it out', before you know it, you're doing more grunting and manipulating your swing just to try and hit it out rather than just hit it hard."
-- Outstanding: Angels outfielder Torii Hunter's at-bat music for his first trip to the plate at home each night is the theme from Sanford & Son, the old television show. It started as a joke last week when Hunter was in a slump.
-- Great line from Larry Stone, the excellent baseball writer for the Seattle Times, on the rise of Justin Smoak: "The Mariners are trying to coax Pat Meares out of retirement so they can do it with Smoak & Meares."
-- White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen on counterpart Mike Scioscia earning his 1,000th win managing the Angels on Sunday: "You manage for 100 years, you will have 1,000 wins." Seriously, Guillen added, "I think it's a great thing, especially when you manage the same ballclub."
Likes: The "20 Greatest Games" on MLB Network is a cool feature. Watched the network's treatment of Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, Jack Morris' 1-0 classic for the Twins over Atlanta, with Morris and John Smoltz in studio. It's worth seeing. ... White Sox outfielder Mark Teahen says he still keeps in touch with some of his ex-Royals' teammates -- the few left from when he was there. ... Glad to see LaTroy Hawkins (shoulder surgery) back in Milwaukee's bullpen. ... Latest CD rave: The Sound of Love: The Very Best of Darlene Love. Man, that woman can sing.
Dislikes: Gatorade used to be so easy. You worked out, you sweated, you rehydrated. But now, there's Gatorade for before your workout (Prime), during/after your workout (Perform) and post-workout (Recovery). What if you drink them in the wrong order. Then what happens? ... So now Kate Hudson is in this Something Borrowed? Does she choose her roles, or handlers? And to think, there was such hope for her after Almost Famous.
Rock 'N' Roll Lyric of the Day:
"You're the reason I changed to beer from soda pop
"And you're the reason I never get to go to the beauty shop
"You're the reason our kids are ugly little darlins'
"Oh, but looks ain't everything
"And money ain't everything"
-- Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, (You're the Reason) Our Kids Are Ugly