The Phillies enter the X Factor portion of their schedule when they travel to Miami for a three-game series against the Marlins on Friday night.
You know the story by now. Marlins ownership had another one of its infamous fire sales in November. Shortstop Jose Reyes, catcher John Buck and pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle were traded away in a purge that reduced the team’s payroll by $60 million. The stripping down of the Marlins came a year after they spent lavishly on talent in preparation of their move into a new ballpark, and it created ill will among the fans/taxpayers who helped pay for that stadium.
“It’s not right, plain and simple,” Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins said of the Marlins’ strip down.
In the wake of the controversial dismantling, the Marlins have been left with a JV team that has been forced to use light-hitting Phillies’ castoff Placido Polanco as a cleanup man in four of nine games. The Marlins, who have the worst record in the majors, have won just one of those nine games. They have scored just 16 runs and been shut out four times.
Despite winning two in a row, the Phillies are off to a middling start at 4-5. The Marlins are a team that the Phils could get well against in a hurry. But here’s the hitch: Every team in the NL East could profit against the Marlins this season. They are the division’s X Factor team. Beating up on them won’t guarantee a team’s winning the NL East, but it can certainly help.
“You’ve got to play them and you’ve got to beat them,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “They’re not going to roll over and give you anything. If they beat you, yeah, that could cause you a lot of problems in your division. I think right now, where they set and who they are -- if you think you’re going to win your division or go somewhere, you have to take care of your business against them.”
Washington and Atlanta has already taken care of some business against Miami. Both have posted an early-season three-game sweep of the Marlins. Now it’s the Phillies’ turn to see how much hay they can make in the first three of 19 games against Miami this season.
The Phils will send John Lannan, Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay to the mound against Ricky Nolasco, rookie Jose Fernandez and Kevin Slowey in the series.
Plenty of good seats remain available.
The Marlins drew just 14,222 and 13,810 on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, the two smallest crowds at their year-old stadium. They could get a bump when Cuban-born pitcher Fernandez starts against Hamels on Saturday night. The 20-year-old right-hander struck out eight Mets in five innings in his big-league debut Sunday. This weekend’s series finale will have a huge Phillies subplot as the struggling Halladay tries for the third time to pitch beyond the fifth inning.
Road-to-nowhere teams like the Marlins have given the Phillies problems in the past. Last year, the Phillies’ late run at an NL wild-card spot suffered a gaping wound when they lost three of four to 107-loss Houston, the worst team in the majors, in mid-September.
The Phillies have to expect to beat the Marlins.
But they can’t assume they will.
“Washington, Miami, New York, Atlanta -- we have to win all these games,” GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said. “You have to win your division games. On any given day, any team can beat another team. This is different than other sports. You saw what Houston did to us last year.
“We have to play good baseball, and we have to play with energy whether there’s four people in the stands or 40,000.”
The Marlins drew 34,439 on opening day, but not all of those fans had their happy, new-season faces on. There are hard feelings toward owner Jeffrey Loria, who has stripped down his club twice in a decade. One fan wore a shirt that said, Marlins baseball: Helping other teams get better since 1998. A couple of protesting fans were asked to leave.
Giancarlo Stanton hasn’t been so lucky. The Marlins’ mega-talent, who expressed his displeasure with the Marlins’ purge this winter, remains part of the team largely because he’s inexpensive at $537,000 this season. Stanton, 23, has averaged 37 homers and 86 RBIs the last two seasons. As his salary climbs, he could be the next big name out the door. And, yes, sources say the Phillies have let it be known that they’d like to talk to the Marlins once they put a For Sale sign on Stanton.
Rollins said the Marlins’ way of operating was a topic of conversation among Team USA players at the World Baseball Classic last month. Stanton was on that club and Rollins was able to take the young slugger’s temperature on the topic.
“He’s going to be OK,” Rollins said. “For his sake, I wish he was somewhere where he could shine and be a star. In a situation like that, the season can get long on you. But he’s going to be OK.”
Stanton hits third in the Marlins’ lineup, a challenging task without a formidable cleanup bat behind him (see story). He is off to a slow start, hitting just .167 (5 for 30) with two doubles, no homers and no RBIs.
The Phillies hope Stanton stays cold this weekend as they look to beat up on a team that they should beat up on.