It’s the bottom of the ninth, two out, and no one on base. Steve Cishek slings one toward the plate as only he can – a blazing fireball launched from a submarine. It’s a swing and a miss! The Miami Marlins have just won the 2013 World Series!
Before you slap my face to awaken me from what is so obviously a dream, let me explain something to you: this is the beautiful thing about this time of year. On Opening Day, the day so holy it gets capitalized, everyone starts out in first place. It’s this rejuvenation that for years caused Joe Posnanski, then of the Kansas City Star, to explain how his Royals were going to win the World Series that year. This year, I’m taking a page from his book. This year, hope springs eternal. This year, the Marlins are going to win the World Series.
The Marlins open their season with several members of their projected roster missing. Logan Morrison is still rehabbing. Justin Ruggiano can’t stay healthy. No problem. The Marlins open with a lineup full of alliteration, as Casey Kotchman and Chris Coghlan take their places. Kevin Slowey is the number two starter. Jose Fernandez, just 20 years old and fresh out of high-A ball, is in the rotation, as is Alex Sanabia. This is a team of has-beens and what-ifs. These are your 2013 Miami Marlins.
Things start off well for the Fish. Ricky Nolasco shows up on Opening Day to strike out 9 Nationals hitters and give up just 5 hits in his 7 innings of work. The Marlins win, and they take 2 of 3 in the series. Then they go to New York and spank the Mets, sweeping all 3 games. The Marlins may not have much, but the Mets’ offense is even more anemic.
By the end of May, Logan Morrison is ready to come back, and all of a sudden the Marlins – in third place behind the Nationals and the Braves – have a problem. Their offense, thought to be a weak spot, is too crowded. Casey Kotchman has shown flashes of what once made him the thirteenth overall pick in the amateur draft. They could put Morrison back in left field, but Juan Pierre has been hitting .300 and has already swiped 22 bases. They’ve considered moving Pierre to center field, but Chris Coghlan is back to his Rookie of the Year play, hitting .310 through the season’s first month. In order to find a place for him, they swallow their pride and hand the fate of their season over to Perry Hill, who is entrusted with getting Coghlan back into playing shape at second base. Donovan Solano, hitting a paltry .240 in his sophomore campaign, becomes a super-utility guy off the bench, much like Alfredo Amezaga and Emilio Bonifacio before him.
It takes a few weeks, but Logan Morrison finally finds his stroke mid-June. He’s doing everything he ever showed the promise of doing. Hitting behind Giancarlo Stanton – who, by the way, led the National League in home runs in April with 10 – he’s been getting on base, hitting home runs, and driving the ball to the gap. By the end of May, his on base percentage is at .370, and it doesn’t dip below for the rest of the season. Rob Brantly is holding down the fort at the bottom of the lineup with a .280 batting average and .320 on base percentage. Adeiny Hechavarria is hitting just .240 with a sub-.300 OBP, but the defense is superb and he even shows some pop. He’s doing his best Alex Gonzalez impression.
As much as the offense is clicking, it’s the pitching that’s surprisingly buoying the Fish. Ricky Nolasco is finally living up to what his peripherals have suggested all these years. He’s not a true ace, but his 3.70 ERA and 8.1 K/9 rate are leading the pack. After returning from injury, Nate Eovaldi has finally harnessed his 98 mile per hour heater, matching Ricky in ERA but striking out 9.2 batters every nine innings. Wade LeBlanc is hit-or-miss in the three spot, sometimes turning in brilliant performances but often being yanked by the fifth inning. Henderson Alvarez‘s shoulder heals well, and he is the consummate fourth starter, eating innings to the tune of a 4.50 ERA. Kevin Slowey is traded in June for a relief prospect, as his spot in the rotation disappeared with the returns of Eovaldi and Alvarez.
Most surprising, however, is the 20-year-old Fernandez. The kid from Cuba does his best Livan Hernandez impression, mowing down hitters left and right as the Miami population finally embraces the team. Fernandez looks like the real deal, and the front office looks like geniuses.
In July, with the Fish still in third place, things start to break their way. Craig Kimbrel must have picked up a thing or two from Heath Bell during their time together in the World Baseball Classic, because he’s blowing games for the Braves left and right. The Nationals catch an unlucky break when Gio Gonzalez is suspended 50 games for steroid use and Bryce Harper suddenly can’t figure out a breaking pitch and looks more like Ben Grieve than Ken Griffey. The Marlins, surprisingly just two games back of the second wild card, have their hand forced. Wade LeBlanc is sent to the bullpen – which has been a strength of the team all season long – and the Fish recall Jacob Turner. He amazingly turns in a sub-4.00 ERA. Though he’s walking more guys than he’d like, he’s also generating a lot of ground balls, allowing the Gold Glove defense of Polanco, Hechavarria, and Kotchman to save him runs.
The Braves’ offense begins to sputter, with the Upton brothers and Dan Uggla all hitting below .230. The Marlins gain sole possession of second place in the division and of the second wild card. Stanton and Cishek are the Marlins’ only All-Star representatives, but the team is all anyone in the media can talk about.
There’s a scary moment in mid-July – Juan Pierre breaks his wrist on a stolen base attempt. The season may be in jeopardy. No need to worry, though – the Marlins recall Christian Yelich to take his place. Yelich hits .300 the rest of the way and wows everyone with his talent and poise. Pierre comes back at the end of August, but he’s used as a part-time player off the bench, pinch hitter, and pinch runner.
By September, the Marlins are kicking on all cylinders. Morrison finally looks at ease in the outfield, and Coghlan has settled into second base nicely. Polanco has stayed healthy, aided by one to two off-days a week courtesy of Solano. Kotchman keeps putting balls in play, Yelich does a little bit of everything, and Stanton is closing in on Gary Sheffield‘s team record of 42 home runs, which he breaks on September 15th. With four games left in the season, it’s official – the Marlins have clinched the second wild card spot. They fly to Los Angeles to beat the Dodgers in the play-in game. Hanley Ramirez goes 0-4 with an error.
For the third time, the Marlins face the Giants in the Division Series. Having used Nolsaco in the play-in game, Turner starts the first game. He walks four hitters and the Marlins lose, 5-2. Eovaldi strikes out eight in game two, and the Marlins hit three home runs. 7-3, good guys. In game three, Fernandez baffles hitters all night, striking out 13 Giants as the Ghost of Eric Gregg was surely looking down on the Marlins that night. Nolasco comes in for game four and gets battered around a bit, but the Marlins do the same to a shaken Tim Lincecum. They win on a Juan Pierre pinch hit bunt double. On to Washington to take on the Nationals.
Gio Gonzalez has been rusty since returning from him suspension, and the Marlins discard him quickly to take a 1-0 lead in the series. In game two, the Marlins hang tight with Jordan Zimmermann throughout the game, but can’t quite break through. Series tied. Game three goes much the same way against Stephen Strasburg, only this time Rafael Soriano blows the save – which he does again the next day to give the Marlins a 3-1 series lead. Amazingly, and against all odds, the Marlins beat Gio Gonzalez a second time to win the series 4-1. The Marlins are headed to the World Series against the American League champion Toronto Blue Jays.
You know how this dream ends (mostly because I prefaced it in the first paragraph of this story). The Marlins miraculously, amazingly, astoundingly, beat the Blue Jays (and half of their former roster) in seven games. Jose Fernandez is the World Series MVP and tells Miami he loves them. David Samson goes crazy and can’t stop telling people that the front office was right. Alex Anthopolous offers Noah Syndergaard to Larry Beinfest in exchange for a World Series ring; he is denied.
Now, do I believe any of this will happen? No more than I believe that Jeffrey Loria isn’t in it for the money. But that’s the beauty of Opening Day – it’s a blank slate. Anything can happen.