Marlins stand out in competitive NL East
Forget about the Phillies. It's going to take much more than the return of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Roy Halladay -- whenever that is -- for this team to win its sixth consecutive National League East title.
Watching the injury-ravaged Phillies play these days is depressing. When they coughed up a 4-2 lead and eventually lost to the Dodgers, 6-5, Wednesday night, manager Charlie Manuel said he hoped the bad times have bottomed out.
Don't count on it. The Dodgers embarrassed the staggering Phillies, 8-3, on Thursday, tearing through the City of Brotherly Love with their first four-game sweep there since the 1940s. The inept Phillies were 1-6 on the homestand.
Simply put, the other four teams in the NL East are far better than the last-place Phillies -- the only team in the division with a losing record.
That said, which team will win the division?
By now, most soothsayers expected the surprising first-place Nationals to tumble, i.e. come back to earth.
Yes, this is a team with great young talent, they said, but probably not quite ready for prime time -- to take long-term control of what has become one of Major League Baseball's most competitive divisions, undoubtedly stronger this year than the perennially tough AL East.
Yet as April and May have turned into June, the Nationals remain in first place. Their performance this spring is better than anyone expected and is far from an aberration. Bryce Harper has burst onto the big-league scene, more than proving he belongs.
I wonder, though, if the Nationals are truly ready to play competitive baseball and handle the pressure of a pennant race for 162 games. This is the true test of a young team.
Plus, manager Davey Johnson is adamant about shutting down ace Stephen Strasburg after 160 innings. That would keep him from pitching down the stretch in September.
Everybody wrote off the Mets prior to the season. That's turned out to be a mistake. Terry Collins has convinced his players that games aren't played on paper. Forget preseason predictions. The Mets are energetic, motivated and with David Wright hitting over .350 an Johan Santana back, a legitimate contender.
And don't ever turn your back on the Braves. They have too much talent.
That brings us to the Marlins, the team I predict will win the division.
A year ago, owner Jeffrey Loria sat in the dugout at Sun Life Stadium in which the Florida Marlins had played since they were created in 1993.
Loria gushed as he looked ahead to 2012 when his team would open in its modernistic new ballpark in downtown Miami. He then tried to convince me how good the 2011 Marlins could be.
It didn't happen. Almost from that day they unraveled, lost 23 of 28 games in June, 80-year-old Jack McKeon replaced Edwin Rodriguez as manager near the end of the month and the Marlins were headed to a last-place finish with a 72-90 record.
With added revenue coming from the new ballpark, Loria was one of the most active owners during the offseason, spending $191 million to land shortstop Jose Reyes, left-hander Mark Buehrle and closer Heath Bell. He made a lucrative, but unsuccessful bid for Albert Pujols.
And, oh yes, brought in controversial, outspoken manager Ozzie Guillen.
The magnificent new ballpark opened with the Marlins losing to St. Louis, the beginning of a disappointing 8-14 start. Inconsistency was the pattern -- win four in a row, lose eight of nine. Call it a shakedown cruise.
The season had barely begun when Guillen was suspended for four games after making unpopular comments about Fidel Castro.
But as the Marlins stumbled out of the gate, Guillen's words when the new park was opening are worth repeating: "It's like having a beautiful house and your marriage stinks. We have a beautiful house here, but if the people who live in it are not good, you're not going to have fun."
Since April, the Marlins have played as well as any team in the division, prompting to the prediction they'll be NL East champs.
They were 21-8 in May, the best month in their history. They ended the month by sweeping the Nationals in three close games.
The fact they've rebounded from April so well and the performances of their pitching staff, including ace Josh Johnson, Buehrle, Ricky Nolasco, Anibal Sanchez and Carlos Zambrano makes them the team to beat in the division.
Johnson, who missed much of 2011, was on the wrong side of the decision in Wednesday's 2-1 loss to the Braves, but he pitched better than he has in maybe a year.
"That's the first time I've seen him throw the ball like that in two, three months," said Guillen. "He raised his pitching. We lost the game, but he did what he was supposed to do. He kept us in the game."
Bell struggled early, but has been lights out in recent games.
Reyes leads the Marlins in hits with 60 and 22-year-old Giancarlo Stanton, heading into Thursday's game, has driven in 40 runs, and blasted most of his 13 homers out of sight. The Marlins have had 21 come-from-behind games this season.
Most impressive has been Hanley Ramirez's move from shortstop to third base to make room for Reyes. Against the Phillies last weekend, Hanley played the position as well as any Gold Glover.
The one concern is the lower half of the batting order, which was obvious in Tuesday and Wednesday losses to Atlanta.
When Marlins Park opened, Loria insisted it should be more about the players on the field than the ballpark. The two should complement each other, he said.
"I wasn't looking for a honeymoon," he added. "I was looking for a good marriage. We've had the beginnings of that with the team. All of a sudden, I'll put my guys up against anybody."
It will take just that to win the division, and the Marlins have the talent to do just that.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.