The Florida Marlins are red-hot at just the right time, and their fans are finally starting to notice.
The playoff-hopeful Marlins look to extend their season-high winning streak to nine games as they complete a three-game series with the suddenly struggling Atlanta Braves.
Florida has won seven in a row for the first time since Aug. 6-13, 1999. Saturday’s 8-3 triumph over NL East-leading Atlanta boosted the Marlins’ lead in the wild-card hunt to 2 1/2 games over Philadelphia, which lost 5-3 at Pittsburgh on Saturday.
Bidding for its first postseason berth since winning the World Series in 1997, Florida has finally begun to attract crowds to previously dormant Pro Player Stadium. Saturday’s game drew 40,414 fans, the Marlins’ largest since July 13, 2001, when they hosted the New York Yankees.
“They should come out every night,” winning pitcher Dontrelle Willis said. “I think they notice we’re playing good ball. I think they appreciate us, and we appreciate them.”
The Marlins have won 13 of their last 15 to climb a season-high 18 games above .500.
Atlanta has dropped three in a row and four of five, including the first two games of this series.
Though the team has owned a comfortable lead in the NL East for months and is on the verge of winning its 12th consecutive division title, slugger Gary Sheffield says the Braves should be more upset about their mediocre 21-20 record over the past five weeks.
“The laid-back attitude, I don’t really like it,” Sheffield said. “These games count.”
The Braves’ biggest motivation in recent weeks has been earning home-field advantage in the playoffs. Currently, Atlanta holds a 1 1/2 game edge over NL West leader San Francisco.
“We need to try to get home-field advantage,” Sheffield said. “I know I don’t want to go to San Francisco in the cold.”
STANDINGS: Braves - 1st place, NL East. Marlins - 2nd place, 8 1/2 GB, NL East.
BRAVES PROBABLE STARTER: Shane Reynolds (11-9, 5.73 ERA). The veteran right-hander has been hit hard in two straight starts, allowing 11 runs and nine hits over 7 1-3 innings. He is 4-9 with a 5.89 ERA in 16 career starts against Florida.
MARLINS PROBABLE STARTER: Josh Beckett (8-7, 2.98 ERA). Beckett has been brilliant in his last two starts, winning both without allowing an earned run. He yielded just four hits over six innings in a 5-0 win over the New York Mets on Monday, striking out six. Beckett is 2-3 with a 1.38 ERA in five career starts against the Braves.
OFFENSIVE LEADERS: Braves - Sheffield, .336 avg. and 119 RBIs; Javy Lopez, 40 HRs; Rafael Furcal, 121 runs and 25 SBs. Marlins - Luis Castillo, .323 avg. and 93 runs; Mike Lowell, 32 HRs and 105 RBIs; Juan Pierre, 60 SBs.
SEASON SERIES: Marlins, 8-6.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Braves - C Lopez hit his 40th home run in Saturday’s defeat—his 39th as a catcher—leaving him two shy of the major league record for a backstop set by Todd Hundley of the New York Mets in 1996. … Right-handed batters are hitting .312 against RHP Reynolds this season. … OF Chipper Jones is 2-for-9 in his career against RHP Beckett. Marlins - 2B Castillo is 2-for-15 in his career against RHP Reynolds. … RHP Beckett has allowed just eight home runs in 20 starts this season. … SS Gonzalez is hitting .417 (5-for-12) in his career against RHP Reynolds.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Braves - 41-33 on the road; Marlins - 48-26 at home.
INJURIES: Braves - OF Damon Hollins (thumb), 15-day DL; RHP Paul Byrd (elbow), 15-day DL; RHP Kevin Gryboski (shoulder), 15-day DL; RHP Darren Holmes (shoulder), 15-day DL; RHP John Smoltz (elbow), 15-day DL. Marlins - 3B Lowell (hand), 15-day DL; LHP Armando Almanza (shoulder), 60-day DL; RHP Toby Borland (appendicitis), 60-day DL; RHP A.J. Burnett (elbow), 60-day DL; RHP Tim Spooneybarger (elbow), 60-day DL.