PHOENIX – The Florida Marlins, bless their still-beating hearts, will be the last to know when their season is over.
That the day might already have arrived is not entirely out of the question now that Hanley Ramirez won’t be swinging a bat for a while, further softening an offense that a month ago all but went missing on Alligator Alley.
But, you know, when your owner quits on you before the season starts, when your management largely ignores the trading deadline, when your fans can’t be bothered to come to the ballpark, and when “arbitration eligible” can be roughly translated as “pack your bags, pal,” you start believing in stuff other people can’t see.
Hell, how do you think the Marlins got here to begin with?
On the extravagance of their $22-million payroll?
“I still believe,” left fielder Luis Gonzalez said.
As dorky as that sounds, it’s exactly what the Marlins started with, exactly what they have left.
That, and one of the better starting rotations in the game.
To a man, they believe they’ll start hitting home runs again. That, if not, they’ll learn to manufacture runs. That they’ll catch the ball better. Or, maybe, just keep the ball in front of them more often. That, yes, they’ll overtake the Philadelphia Phillies and then the New York Mets.
They’re so charming when they’re young.
“We didn’t go out to prove we belonged,” outfielder Cody Ross said. “We went out to prove we could contend. That we could be a winning team.”
Nine days ago, they were a game-and-a-half back in the NL East. Now, well, they aren’t. Now they have lost four series in a row. They had a 2-5 homestand when they didn’t score three runs a game. Then Ramirez, the team's best hitter, bruised his right thumb and Miguel Cabrera never seemed so far away.
These Marlins, however, have earned September, assuming September ever comes.
They struck out 13 more times in seven innings against Randy Johnson on Friday night. They could not hold a lead they built despite striking out, yeah, 13 times in seven innings. And then they … won.
Leaning into another bad loss, staring at a seven-game hole, four-and-a-half months of work dying by the inning, Ross, who’d had wonderful at-bats against Johnson all night, homered off Jon Rauch.
“We are 100 percent in it,” Ross said. “We believe in each other, that it’s a little stretch we’re going through. So, we just gotta get through it, start playing better.”
Just the other day, Scott Olsen, one of the talented starters in a rotation that has a bucket-load of promise, was musing about his future. He told the Miami Herald there was a decent chance he wouldn’t be back next season, not because he’s not very good and not because he’d be a free agent, but because he was entering his arbitration years. About half the 25-man roster, in fact, is due the salary bump that comes with arbitration, including fellow starters Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco.
“They can’t bring everybody back,” Olsen said. “Well, they could, but they probably won’t.”
Apparently, that’s a fairly common conversation in the Marlins’ clubhouse. According to one player, most of those discussions end with the same observation.
So they toil, they push each other, they surprise everybody when a team shows up on Opening Day, then, other than Ramirez, they ready their farewells.
“It’s one of those things,” Olsen said Friday. “It’s accepted. You just kind of take it as it comes. It is what it is. I would like to be here. I’ve grown pretty fond of these guys here.”
You wonder how healthy that is for an organization, the well-chronicled starts and stops, World Series games and strategic trap doors, the transience that hangs with those championship flags. Shouldn’t the Marlins open next season with a rotation of Johnson, Nolasco, Anibal Sanchez, Chris Volstad and maybe Olsen or Andrew Miller? Won’t they?
“It’s kind of scary,” second baseman Dan Uggla said. “You think about having the staff we have right now for a full year. It’s scary what this team could do.
“Nobody in here wants to start over. But, nobody in here knows what’s going to happen.”
So, they get about five more weeks, 33 games. After that, well, they’ll look around, shake some hands, see what works out. They were supposed to have lost 100 games, and instead for going on five months they've been stuck to the soles of the Mets’ and Phillies’ shoes.
Generally, there’s an expiration date to these us-against-the-world seasons. More than stars and guarantees, money buys depth, and money buys Manny Ramirez at the trading deadline, and money buys relief. And it’s exhausting to carry it all by yourself, to substitute belief for bigger and better ballplayers.
Uggla shook his head.
“That’s baseball,” he said. “Anything can happen.”
Except, it’s beginning to look like it already has.