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Wiley also tinkered with Burnett's delivery, so he wouldn't turn his left hip so far toward third base. Burnett's old delivery, says Wiley, made it more difficult for him to pitch to the first base side of the plate. Says Burnett, who was 3-1 with a 2.43 ERA through Sunday, "I'm more under control. [The change] allows me to stay balanced and go toward home plate with a smooth effort."
Considering his young starters' histories of injuries and wearing down, Marlins manager Jack McKeon has raised eyebrows by working them deep into games early in the season. "Jack rolled the dice, and everything worked out well when Beckett beat the Yankees on three days' [rest] at Yankee Stadium," says one scout, "but overextending pitchers over the long haul will not work. Look at the Cubs' [oft-injured righthanders Mark Prior and Kerry Wood]."
Beckett, Burnett and Willis combined for five complete games in Florida's first 12 outings, but in those five games they averaged a relatively low 106 pitches. Burnett's 115 in six innings against the Reds on April 22 were the most by any Marlins starter this year. "It's not about innings, it's about pitches," says Seattle Mariners pitching coach Bryan Price. "When you get to 130 pitches or more is when I think you'd have to wonder."
Wiley points to the physical stature of Beckett (6'5", 222 pounds), Burnett (6'4", 230) and Willis (6'4", 239). "All three of them are big, strong guys, who came to camp in outstanding shape and ready to go," says Wiley, who sits next to McKeon in the dugout and has a voice on how long to leave a pitcher in the game, though it's ultimately the manager's decision. "If they can keep their pitches down, there's no reason why they can't throw more complete games."
The 74-year-old McKeon, an old-school manager who puffs on cigars as he tells musty baseball stories in the dugout before games, is the first to admit that he doesn't pay much attention to pitch counts. That could prove dangerous for Burnett, who threw only 143 major league innings over the last two seasons combined, and Beckett, who has never thrown more than 156 in a season. "The only guys who worry about pitch counts are writers and broadcasters," says McKeon. "I'm worried about getting outs. When I was in the minor leagues, we used to have 17-man rosters. You can figure how many pitchers you would carry--seven or eight at most. You don't think those guys ran up some high pitch counts?"
Says Burnett, "I don't really worry about pitch counts. A lot of it has to do with the game and how you get to that total, whatever it is. If you're in shape, I don't think you should have any problem throwing 115 pitches a game."
To help keep pitch counts down, Wiley preaches the value of efficiency: Get the easy groundball and trust your defense. "[In the past] I wanted to strike out everybody," says Beckett. "Now I have to step back and tell myself to stop thinking that way. I think we're seeing the light now." Indeed, for all their stellar numbers this season, the three starters have strikeout rates roughly on par with their career averages. "I'm just doing what [ Wiley] tells us," says Burnett. "I'm getting ahead of hitters, throwing strikes and letting my defense work behind me."
If the big three remain healthy, and veterans Al Leiter, a 39-year-old lefthander, and Brian Moehler, a 33-year-old righty, provide quality starts, the Marlins could not only end Atlanta's run of 13 straight division championships but also go deep into October. Says one NL general manager, "They have a rotation that could take over a postseason." ?