MILWAUKEE – A morning with the hottest team in baseball means a morning of listening to Dan Uggla apply thorough peer pressure around the Florida Marlins clubhouse, and that might be even more fun than watching the sport's biggest underdogs try to do the improbable.
Uggla, the Rule 5 pick-turned-Rookie of the Year favorite, is sitting on a couch watching Ohio State demolish Northern Illinois. On the coffee table rests a handful of gumballs in green wrappers. They're not from the United States. He thinks they're from a Latin American country. All he knows is they taste like death warmed over.
"Try it," says Uggla, tossing a piece to fellow rookie Reggie Abercrombie.
"What is it?" Abercrombie says.
"Just try it," Uggla says.
(An aside: Has "Just try it" ever turned out well?)
"I'll bite half," Abercrombie says.
"Fine," Uggla says.
Abercrombie does, then makes a Bitter Beer Face and spits the gum in a trash can.
"That's terrible, man," Abercrombie says.
"No bueno," chimes in a friend of Marlins slugger Miguel Cabrera, who imbibed in the gum, too.
"Just gotta get past the sourness," he says.
Sounds a lot like the Marlins' season.
With a payroll that started the season below $15 million, Florida was expected to lose more than 100 games. The Marlins were well on their way with an 11-31 start.
And yet here they are in September, a game above .500 at 69-68, two games back of the Padres in the National League wild-card race, sporting a 58-37 record since May 22, better than everyone not named the Twins, Mets or Yankees.
Elite company, certainly, for a team with six rookies who could draw Rookie of the Year votes and a handful of others whose mustache and beard can't connect.
"They expected to win," Marlins manager Joe Girardi said. "Our goal in spring training was to win the World Series. I never put limitations on how many games I thought they'd win."
Because Girardi didn't want to know. The Marlins had sold off all of their high-priced veterans except Dontrelle Willis to shed payroll and acquire prospects. The team Girardi signed on to manage this offseason wasn't the one that greeted him in spring training.
There was Hanley Ramirez, the crackerjack shortstop from the Josh Beckett deal, and Mike Jacobs, obtained from the Mets for Carlos Delgado. And then Uggla, the 25-year-old second baseman taken for $50,000 during the winter meetings who seems in the middle of all clubhouse activities, particularly with catcher Miguel Olivo.
Olivo: "I need a bat."
Uggla: "You can take my bat with all the strikeouts."
Olivo: "You won't give me a regular bat?"
Uggla: "I was just kidding."
Olivo: "I don't want your bat."
Uggla: "I'll get you a bat."
Olivo: "I don't want your bat."
Uggla: "I was kidding!"
Olivo: "I don't want your bat."
Uggla: "You're taking it too personal, dude."
Smiling, Olivo walked away while watching Uggla squirm. In the players' lounge, Alfredo Amezaga was dispatching challengers in Street Fighter 2. Pitcher Brian Moehler barked like a dog for no good reason, really. Outfielder Cody Ross pumped his fist when Atlanta's Adam LaRoche hit a game-winning home run in the ninth inning to beat Philadelphia, which is slightly ahead of the Marlins.
"It's foolish to say people aren't going to watch the scoreboard," Girardi said. "Because obviously you want to know people you're chasing and what they do."
Soon enough, the Marlins could be the ones being chased. They've won four straight after St. Louis stopped their nine-game winning streak. They play the Phillies 10 times this month.
Not even nasty gum fazes them.
"Try it," Uggla said, putting the full Willy Loman effort on Willis.
"If it tastes nasty," Willis said, "I'm-a … "
He stopped. Willis knows that trying the sour makes you appreciate the sweet that much more.
Ryan Howard, Philadelphia: Sixty-two home runs is looking like a real possibility if Howard continues to mash at his current rate. So is a National League MVP award, even if Howard's OPS trails Albert Pujols' and his all-around game can't match Carlos Beltran's. His 72 extra-base hits – 53 of them home runs – rank fifth in baseball behind Grady Sizemore (80), Beltran (76), Travis Hafner (74) and David Ortiz (73).
Oakland Athletics: Steady as they go, the A's have increased their AL West lead to 6½ games and crept back into contention for home-field advantage. Just more of the usual: Great pitching from their starters (all with ERAs under 4.54 since Aug. 1) and their bullpen (Chad Gaudin and Joe Kennedy haven't given up a run since then, either) – and that's with the team giving up more than a hit an inning. Frank Thomas is hitting home runs, the team teems with hitters whose walk-to-strikeout ratios have hovered around 1-to-1 and the rest of their division isn't very good. All of which is a recipe for postseason success. We'll see about that one.
Barry Bonds, San Francisco: If Bonds can keep this pace next season, Major League Baseball will have a doozy of a decision on its hands: How do you celebrate a new home run record? Bonds has homered in three straight games, hit five in his last six and raised his OPS to its highest level since the end of July. Getting on base more than 46 percent of the time is extremely valuable, good knees or not, and 22 home runs in 308 at-bats – including his vintage binge – can't diminish the interest on the free-agent market.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Rainouts are about the best the Diamondbacks can hope for these days. Since last Tuesday, the only days they haven't lost were Thursday's off day and Friday's rainout. Arizona is crumbling as its pitching does, and manager Bob Melvin's replacement of closer Jorge Julio with Jose Valverde (who he replaced with Julio earlier this season) is like tossing a feather pillow from an overweight vessel.
Ichiro, Seattle: Never was Ichiro an imposing power hitter. His highest slugging percentage since arriving in the United States was .457 in his rookie season. But this year's .394 is bad, and his numbers since the All-Star break are positively unacceptable. In 207 at-bats, Ichiro has one home run, seven RBIs and is batting just .266. Even worse, he doesn't walk (his on-base is .308) and his power is nonexistent (.309 slugging percentage). Recently, the most overpaid player on the Mariners hasn't been Richie Sexson or Adrian Beltre. It's been Ichiro.
Chicago White Sox: Over the last 49 games, here are the numbers for White Sox starting pitchers: 312 2/3 innings, 353 hits, 73 walks, 194 strikeouts, 44 home runs and a 4.92 ERA. The only bright spot is the lack of walks, yet factoring in the exorbitant number of hits Sox pitchers have given up, that's of little consolation. From all indications, if Chicago makes the playoffs it will be almost entirely on the strength of its bats, because unlike last season, the pitching just isn't there.
Skeptical Hometown Columnist of the Week
Bernie Miklasz, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan did not take too kindly to Miklasz's assertions that a) their pitching staff isn't very good and b) they've inexplicably buried talented rookie starter Anthony Reyes all season.
Truth hurts, right?
The last time I checked, the Cardinals had one certifiably good starter, Chris Carpenter. The others, at best, are coin flips. The erratic Jason Marquis has the highest ERA (5.86) among full-time NL starters. Jeff Suppan pitches well at home but gets battered (7.07 ERA) on the road. Only three of Jeff Weaver's nine starts as a Cardinal qualify as quality starts. And [Mark] Mulder is hopelessly damaged for 2006, in his left shoulder, psyche or both.
In other words, I don't see a recreation of the 1971 Baltimore Orioles, who had four 20-game winners, on the mound at Busch Stadium. I see a motley crew, hacking up poor to mediocre starts. And it is the team's worst liability.
Matchup of the Week
So, two of the top three teams in the National League will meet for a four-game series that could foreshadow the NL Championship Series, and what kind of pitching matchups are scheduled?
And those, along with the Cardinals' as described above, are the rotations for the three likely NL division champions.
Some players, on the other hand, haven't been so good.
(Thanks to Baseball Musings' awesome day-by-day database for the information.)
Run, Chunky! Award: Ronnie Belliard, 2B, St. Louis – For grounding into eight double plays
Stop Swinging Award: Kenji Johjima, C, Seattle – For taking only one walk in 95 plate appearances
Just Swing Smarter Award: Adam Dunn, OF, Cincinnati – For striking out 45 times in 115 at-bats
Eat Your Wheaties Award: Jason Kendall, C, Oakland – For 37 singles against eight doubles, no triples and no homers
Quit Running Award: Gary Matthews Jr., OF, Texas – For being caught stealing three times and not swiping a single base.
Win a Game Award: Tim Corcoran, SP, Tampa Bay – For going 0-5 over the last five weeks – and 0-7 dating back to July 17.
Three True Outcomes Award: Casey Fossum, SP, Tampa Bay – For having the fourth-highest walk rate, fifth-highest strikeout rate and 23rd-highest home run rate among 163 pitchers with 20 or more innings.
Start Missing Bats Award: Livan Hernandez, SP, Arizona – For giving up a big-league-high 61 hits.
No Foresight Award: Joe Torre, manager, New York Yankees – For making Scott Proctor and Ron Villone the two most used relievers in terms of both games (19 each) and innings pitched (24 1/3 for Proctor, 23 1/3 for Villone).
Playoff odds report
Not that we are to question technology, but the fine folks at Baseball Prospectus say the New York Mets are a 100 percent lock to make the playoffs. Hold your horses, computers. Their magic number is 11. Then they can be 100 percent.
In the meantime, here are the chances each particular team will make the postseason, determined by computers that simulated the remainder of the season 1 million times. (Last week's percentages in parentheses.)
New York Yankees: 99.91 percent (97.84 percent)
Detroit Tigers: 98.58 percent (97.57 percent)
Oakland A's: 93.86 percent (80 percent)
Minnesota Twins*: 53.61 percent (58.51 percent)
Chicago White Sox: 46.61 percent (41.00 percent)
Los Angeles Angels: 6.07 percent (16.68 percent)
Boston Red Sox: 0.90 percent (4.23 percent)
New York Mets: 100 percent (99.99985 percent)
St. Louis Cardinals: 92.35 percent (83.64 percent)
Los Angeles Dodgers: 90.03 percent (74.10 percent)
San Diego Padres*: 48.68 percent (40.09 percent)
Philadelphia Phillies: 18.24 percent (20.43 percent)
Cincinnati Reds: 15.50 percent (37.98 percent)
Florida Marlins: 12.22 percent (6.45 percent)
San Francisco Giants: 12.04 percent (16.58 percent)
Houston Astros: 8.23 percent (6.10 percent)
* – Wild card leader: It's a two-team race in the AL with the Twins and White Sox, Minnesota holding a 48.03 percent chance to Chicago's 42.42 percent. In the NL, on the other hand, it remains organized chaos, with San Diego at 29.59 percent not exactly the safest best ahead of Philadelphia (18.24 percent), Florida (12.22 percent) and, yes, the West-leading Dodgers (12.65 percent).
The final word
"They have one child, and I'm sure they would like more." – Chicago Cubs manager Dusty Baker on Michael Barrett, who underwent surgery Saturday to stop scrotal bleeding after taking a foul tip to the groin.