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Posted: Wednesday May 21, 2008 12:34PM; Updated: Wednesday May 21, 2008 8:34PM
Jon Heyman Jon Heyman >
DAILY SCOOP

New maturity has Marlins winning, getting along swimmingly

Story Highlights
  • The clubhouse is more mature and the team is winning with more frequency
  • Manager Fredi Gonzalez had to institute some new clubhouse rules
  • The list of baseball's early season surprises, good and bad
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Kevin Gregg
Like a lot of his teammates, Kevin Gregg is underrated, underpaid...and playing great.
AP

MIAMI -- The first-place Florida Marlins are simultaneously confounding the scouts and contradicting their stats. Their batters are first in the league in strikeouts, with 359. Their fielders are second in errors, with 40.

Except for franchise player Hanley Ramirez, who has 13 stolen bases, they almost never steal a base.

Yet, they are threatening to steal their division.

Hard as it is for most to believe, the dirt-cheap Marlins have disrupted the expected two-team duel between the Mets and Phillies in the National League East. And some folks, even people inside the game, have a hard time figuring out how they're doing it.

"They go about their business with a chip on their shoulder,'' one National League scout said. "They have a zillion flaws. But no one told them. They have no starting pitching. And no defense. They obviously don't read the papers.''

If they did, they'd learn that they are the surprise of baseball so far. At 25-19 through Tuesday, the Marlins are 1 games ahead of the Phillies and Braves in the NL East, and eons ahead of where they were last year.

The Marlins won a big one Tuesday night, 3-2 over the Diamondbacks, the team with the NL's best record, thanks to a five-out save by closer Kevin Gregg, who's underrated and underpaid (but then, who isn't around here?). Gregg got out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the eighth inning after Renyel Pinto loaded the bases on walks.

"Other than the bleep [he actually said bleep] in the eighth inning, that was probably as good a game as we've played in awhile,'' said second year-manager Fredi Gonzalez, whose upbeat demeanor appears to be a good mix for the improved young team.

As of Opening Day, the Marlins were the youngest team in the majors at almost exactly 27 years on average. But last year's Marlins team was not only young, it bordered on immature. The clubhouse appeared to have an Animal House quality to it (or maybe Romper Room is more apt, considering the ages involved).

Gonzalez had to earn the players' respect, and he appears on the way to doing that. In his second season after taking over for no-nonsense manager Joe Girardi, who was well respected by the players but didn't come close to getting along with owner Jeffrey Loria or the front office and was fired for it.

The players took advantage of Gonzalez's more relaxed approach last year, but with a year to acclimate himself, Gonzalez is putting his own stamp on his hometown team. After a year of being treated like a substitute teacher, Gonzalez got serious.

First he banned boom boxes in the clubhouse, or any clubhouse music for that matter, and offered instead to buy an iPod for anyone who requested one (no players took him up on it), and he also instituted a rule requiring a suit or sports coat be worn on team planes. The change in dress doesn't seem like a big deal, but it's more important that anyone thinks. A lot of last year's shenanigans were said to have occurred on team flights.

Last year's off-field issues aren't something Gonzalez will talk about publicly, but his new rules added a bit of seriousness to a team that was way too wild last year.

The young Marlins appear to be growing up before our eyes.

"Am I surprised? No, I'm not surprised,'' Loria said. "They're a talented group. They're playing the game the way it's supposed to be played. They certainly believe in themselves.''

And now, it seems, they believe in behaving themselves. "It's a great clubhouse, a great group,'' Loria added.

According to the young Marlins, it's not a group that's at all shocked to be where they are, even after trading away stars Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis for a batch of even younger players. What remains are Ramirez and a bunch of other 20 somethings who are better than people realize.

"I don't think it's a surprise to us at all,'' first baseman Mike Jacobs said.

Well then, they're alone. A team with this small a payroll and this many young players just isn't supposed to be able to compete today.

And it isn't just the money. Or their youth.

No one thought they had enough pitching, either. Case in point: Their opening-day starter was Mark Hendrickson a journeyman who, with a 5-2 record, isn't pitching like one.

"Their pitching isn't going to hold up,'' an American League scout insisted the other day. Perhaps not, but they're hoping to stay close enough for when Josh Johnson (elbow) and Anibal Sanchez (shoulder) return, perhaps by late this summer.

Their best pitcher so far is Scott Olsen, who probably unfairly came to symbolize the wild Marlins last year when he got a DUI. Olsen was also among the worst starting pitchers in the National League last year, but now his ERA is down from 5.81 to 2.82.

The lineup is strong, especially when it starts with Ramirez, who is one of the game's best players. (You think the Marlins are going to give $70 million over six years to just anybody?) Ramirez, who has nine home runs and is hitting .310, is off to a solid start despite a dreadful last few days when he's gone 1-for-15 with 10 whiffs, basically coinciding with his new contract and a move from No. 1 to No. 3 in the order.

But Ramirez has more help than you think. Dan Uggla, who has a ridiculous 10 home runs in May alone and 14 altogether, plus Jeremy Hermida, Jacobs and Josh Willingham form a young and productive lineup.

There are holes, though. They don't really have a starting center fielder and are hoping that Jacque Jones, who was just signed to a minor-league deal, will be better than he was in Detroit, where he hit .165. I'd love to doubt the Marlins, but their scouts seem to be holding some serious secrets.

The detractors can't help but point to that defense, a nightly adventure. Their infield defense isn't going to make anyone forget that stellar Marlins infield from the 2003 World Series champion team that had Derrek Lee at first base, Luis Castillo at second, Alex Gonzalez at short and Mike Lowell at third.

And it's not just outside critics who are concerned about their glovework, either. While Gonzalez said it's been a very "pleasant'' start overall, he doesn't hide his distaste for their defensive problems. "We've been addressing defense since spring training,'' Gonzalez says, "and I'm still not content.''

Yes, there are those flaws.

But even if they don't stay at the top, they're going to have a lot more fun than anyone figured.

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