Off all the unconventional, inconceivable, improbable-bordering-on-impossible runs by South Florida teams in 2023, does any top the Florida Marlins just making the playoffs?
Run their numbers in a sport run by numbers:
Last in runs scored in the National League.
Second-to-last in fielding with 93 errors.
Eighth in the 15-team league in pitching with a 4.42 earned-run average.
Twenty-second in major-league payroll.
How this awful-scoring, terrible-fielding, average-pitching, low-payroll team made the playoffs is the latest amazing head-scratcher on our doorstep. It even comes with the added storyline as lifelong Marlins fan and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School’s own Jesus Luzardo takes the mound to pitch Game 1 against Philadelphia on Tuesday in the NL wild-card series.
“Being a Marlins fan my whole life and then getting into this position is something I can’t put into words,’’ said Luzardo, who wore No. 9 at youth games in Broward, a nod to former Marlins outfielder Juan Pierre. “It really hasn’t hit me. Hopefully, don’t the road it does.
“I’m just to enjoy the ride and try to make it last as long as possible.”
Most baseball metrics and all common sense expected the ride to lurch into oblivion somewhere across 162 games. Instead, it lurched to 84 wins and into Philadelphia for this oddest and most punitive of playoff setups: A best-of-three series on the road.
Don’t count them out, because no one counted them in. They fought right to the final weekend to get here, with the key number being a 33-14 record in one-run games thanks to tough minds, timely plays, a good bullpen and more than a pinch of good luck.
Only Cincinnati had more one-run wins, but its record was a more balanced 35-29.
“That was part of what we did all year long — come from behind, win the one-run game, high-intensity,’’ Marlins manager Skip Schumaker said. “Our bullpen was really, really good, kept us in those games or let us fight back to win some of those.
“There’s a lot of guys who have been there before to help that culture, and then some of these young guys started believing they could do it more and more once they felt it in the season.”
They won just 69 games last year, had the second-worst offense and didn’t do much in the offseason besides hiring a manager who hadn’t managed in Schumaker and a singles-slapping second baseman who hadn’t played second base in Luis Arraez.
Those moves proved prescient by General Manager Kim Ng. Schumaker brought a fresh attitude and upbeat disposition. Arraez is one of the top players in baseball and leads the Marlins in most important numbers. On Sunday, he became the NL batting champion, a year after he was the AL batting champion with Minnesota.
Throw in owner Bruce Sherman allowing increases to the payroll and Ng making midseason trades for some needed power, and the Marlins emerged from a two-decade downer with the kind of season that disproved some long-standing tenets.
They’ll never win until their owner spends big. Sherman took over a season ago and let the Ng smartly ad to the payroll this year to a more respectable $101.4 million. They’ll always be dollar handicapped. But things worked enough this year that they’re in the playoffs and the game’s biggest spenders in the New York Mets ($355 million), New York Yankees ($275M) and San Diego Padres ($275M) are sitting home.
They won’t win without minor-league help. Derek Jeter’s drafts were a big fail in yielding some pitching but just one everyday player on this roster in co-catcher Nick Fortes. Ng instead has found gems like bullpen stalwart Tanner Scott and pitching coach Mel Stottelmyre polished up a young talent like Luzardo.
So, on Tuesday night, Luzardo pitches Game No. 163 in a Marlins season for the first time since 2003. He went to the World Series that year as a fan. Now he’s pitching for the most improbable baseball team still going.
Philadelphia (90-72) is the big favorite, because they’ve got the big payroll, the better lineup and playoff-tested team. Schumaker has been here before. He was a small-name St. Louis Cardinals player who drove in the only run in a 1-0 game to sink Philadelphia in the 2011 postseason.
“What you take away from that is get in and you have a shot,’’’ he said. “We have it. That’s all you can ask for because you never know what happens in the postseason.”
Ask the Florida Panthers and Miami Heat, who made their respective finals. Ask Florida Atlantic, Miami and Nova Southeastern men’s basketball teams, making deep March runs. The Marlins are the latest amazing story. Look at their numbers. Now watch if they make more magic.