MIAMI (AP) — Turning to make a pickoff throw, Jose Fernandez stumbled and fell, spiraling to the dirt like a human corkscrew as his throw went sailing for an embarrassing error.
The Miami Marlins rookie rose smiling. It's easier to shrug off the occasional pratfall with a grin when you win, and after a humiliating start this season, the Marlins have found their footing.
Miami began a trip this week far from first, but no longer worst. After a 13-41 start that inspired comparisons to the 1962 Mets and other historically awful teams, the Marlins reversed course with a 17-10 tear.
By beating San Diego for the third game in a row Monday, the Marlins climbed ahead of the Houston Astros in the race to avoid baseball's lousiest record. With another 22 victories in a row, the Marlins would be above .500. They might even win more games this year than the Miami Heat — in the regular season, at least.
"Winning's way better than losing," first baseman Logan Morrison said. "Somebody who's pretty wise once said that."
The Marlins' miserable start, worst-in-the-majors attendance and $37 million payroll has made them easy to overlook. But with an abundance of young talent, the winning might just be beginning.
The 20-year-old Fernandez briefly looked like a rookie making his clumsy pickoff move Monday, but with 94 strikeouts and an ERA of 2.72, he might be bound for the All-Star Game. Or perhaps the Marlins' representative will be 22-year-old rookie center fielder Marcell Ozuna, who leads the team in hits even though he spent the first month of the season in Double-A.
Rookie infielders Derek Dietrich and Ed Lucas were called up in May to further revive a feeble offense, and rookie shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria has played Gold Glove-caliber defense.
"We've had some changes definitely for the good," outfielder Justin Ruggiano said. 'It's fun coming to the ballpark. Every game we feel like we can win."
There have been young reinforcements for the rotation, too. Jacob Turner, a 22-year-old right-hander, started the season in Triple-A after a disappointing spring but has regained his command and gone 2-0 with a 1.76 ERA in six starts, including a complete game Saturday. Nate Eovaldi, a 23-year-old right-hander, is 1-0 with a 2.00 ERA in three starts after missing the first part of the season because of shoulder inflammation.
The trio of Fernandez, Turner and Eovaldi form the foundation of a rotation that thrifty owner Jeffrey Loria considers ideal — talented but cheap.
"That group of young pitchers is impressive," Padres manager Bud Black said. "The Marlins have got to be real happy with those guys."
The rotation becomes even younger when 23-year-old Henderson Alvarez makes his 2013 debut Thursday in Atlanta after being sidelined by shoulder inflammation. With Alvarez healthy again, the Marlins are almost certain to trade right-hander Ricky Nolasco, their career leader in victories and by far their highest-paid player at $11.5 million.
Less certain is the status of 23-year-old right-fielder Giancarlo Stanton, the 2012 NL slugging leader. Unhappy about the Marlins' payroll purge last year, he started the season poorly, then missed five weeks with a strained right hamstring.
Stanton's tape-measure homers draw scant attention in Miami, and because he longs to play in his native California, there's speculation he'll be traded rather than sign a long-term contract. In the meantime, he regained his stroke and provides much-needed pop for a team that still ranks last in the majors in runs, homers, slugging and on-base percentage.
"Having Giancarlo back really helps," Morrison said. "Not that he's old, but he has been around for a while. And he's a great hitter. Any publicity he gets, if he was playing for the Dodgers or Yankees, he'd get 10 times as much."
The Marlins could be grateful for any lack of attention in April and May, when they played like laughingstocks. A slew of injuries contributed to the dismal situation, and things got so bad veteran Miguel Olivo quit one day after batting practice, deciding he'd rather retire than be a third-string catcher for the team with the worst record in the majors.
"The first couple of months were rough," rookie manager Mike Redmond said. "We weren't really in that many games."
But 2013 was never about the won-loss record. All that matters is how the youngsters plays, and on that score the season has been a success.
More top prospects are on the way, with outfielders Christian Yelich and Jake Marisnick expected to break into the big leagues sometime after the All-Star break. The Marlins may be far out of first place, but there's a sense the roller-coaster franchise is headed upward.
"Let's fly under the radar as long as we can," Ruggiano said.
In Miami, that shouldn't be too tough.
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