Well, why not think it?
“We’re in a pennant race,” Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly said before Friday’s first game in Philadelphia. “No matter how we got here. We’re in one. That’s the best kind of baseball to play. Everything counts.”
What’s the alternative to saying it?
“We’re excited with the thought we’re competing for a playoff spot,” general manager Mike Hill said. “We wake up (Friday), July 24th, and we’re going for the playoffs … you’re truly playing for something that is obtainable.”
Sure, the Marlins sound like a team waking up on third base today thinking it hit a triple. And with this uncertain lineup, the team might be happy to reach third no matter how it happens.
But what else should they do? How else can they talk? A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, as the poet said, or what’s an OPS mean?
Besides, there already are so many ways this Opening Day is beyond the norm, as Mattingly listed, from no fans to dugout masks to missing the usual pre-game celebration of flyover jets and unfurled flags to his temperature having been taken six times by early afternoon Thursday.
What’s a little unreasonable hope between friends?
Finally, we have baseball back Friday, at least for as long it works and whatever form it takes in this coronavirus pandemic. As Mattingly spoke, it was announced one of the game’s new stars, Washington’s Juan Soto, is out after testing positive for COVID-19.
But for all the questions and uncertainty, the main issue for for the Marlins opener doesn’t change if its April or July, if it comes in a normal world or this reconfigured one: Are they any good yet?
There are rising guys like Sandy Alcanatra, who pitches in Friday’s opener, with the big fastball, big body and enough development to think his time has come to make a larger name for himself.
“They want me to be a leader,” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to do. Keep preparing myself, keep getting better. Become an ace.”
You can go down the starting rotation and say the same. Hill did just that in overstating why the Marlins can challenge for a playoff spot.
“All these guys have gotten better,” he said. “All of them have the ability to go deep in the game and give us a chance to win. That’s how you win.”
It’s a leap of faith or fantasy to think every one of these starters will take a step forward. Just as it is to think the league’s worst offense last year will be upgraded enough by free-agent buys Corey Dickerson, Jonathan Villar and Jesus Aguilar.
That gets into the real problem with this shortened season. It’s made a mess of the Marlins’ plan to develop their top prospects normally. Most of them are in Jupiter, scrimmaging against each other, instead of playing minor-league games with the thought of being promoted to the big leagues in June or July.
It’s July now. The only plan left is to get hot at the start of this 60-game sprint of a season and enjoy some form of an earned pennant race a month from now. Not that anyone really expects that. There’s little star power here, and 10 of the Marlins’ 30 roster players Friday will enjoy their first major league opening day.
Hill laid out the Marlins’ underdog talking point when they regrouped for practices a few weeks ago. “Why not us?” he said.
Everyone can come up with a dozen reasons why. Too young. Not enough offense. Not any depth. Atlanta. Philadelphia. A tough schedule involving the American League East. You can go on with the issues of why they won’t win. And on.
But the good thing is the Marlins haven’t given their players an excuse to lose. That’s the stamp of Derek Jeter, who said this week: “You can’t accept mediocrity. We preach it over and over again. It’s something taught from rookie ball on up. When you take the field, you’re taking it with the expectation you’re going to win.”
And when you start the season on third base? You think about the playoffs, no matter how distant the idea is.
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