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There’s nothing fishy about the Marlins – Florida – N.L. Report

There’s nothing fishy about the Marlins – Florida – N.L. Report – Column

Jerry Crasnick

In early April, a Navy paratrooper dressed as Billy the Marlin lost his head in the skies over south Florida. In late May, two motorists saw the mascot’s head resting on a turnpike guardrail, placed the discovery in their car and returned it to Pro Player Stadium.

Now Billy’s piscine noggin is looming ominously in the Braves’ rear-view mirror. It would be an understatement to say this fish gets around.

It took four patient years and a monstrous financial commitment by Marlins owner H. Wayne Huizenga, but Florida is legitimate World Series contender. No one can attest to that fact better than the Braves.

The Marlins and Braves already have played their final 1997 regular-season game, but if the preliminary thrusting and parrying is any indication, the baseball will be first-rate if they meet in October.

Florida won eight of the 12 meetings. With the exception of an 11-5 Marlins victory back in May, there was none of this new-age “baseball” that so dominates today’s psyche. The season series featured high-quality pitching, plenty of intensity and nine games decided by two or fewer runs each. The Braves’ four victories were by scores of 3-2, 4-2, 4-3 and 2-1.

Florida manager Jim Leyland’s toughest chore in a playoff series against Atlanta might be deciding whether to start Kevin Brown, Alex Fernandez or Tony Saunders in the opener. Saunders, a rookie lefthander, was pitching for Class AA Portland a year ago, but in four 1997 starts against the Braves, he was 3-0 with a 1.65 ERA.

The Braves never get too hung up on what transpires from April through September. And the Marlins have enough playoff veterans to refrain from drawing any premature conclusions. But you can’t fault the Florida people for throwing around the “R world” a little.

“They’re still the champs,” Marlins G.M. David Dombrowski says. “But if we’re fortunate enough to get into postseason play — and that’s a big if because there’s a long way to go — I think they at least recognize we’re a serious challenger to them.

“We already had a great deal of respect for the Braves. Hopefully, they left with a great deal of respect for our ballclub, too.”

The way the Braves are hitting, they’re in no position to discount anyone. They scored more than four runs once in their first 15 August games. In their last homestand, they hit two homers in eight games, with Danny Bautista and Jeff Blauser doing the honors.

G.M. John Schuerholz refers to the problem as a prolonged “malaise.” That’s French for, “We can’t get any clutch hits.”

“An old sage scout named Tom Ferrick once told me, `Stats don’t lie,'” Schuerholz says. “If that’s true, we have a massive offensive explosion heading our way sometime soon. If it matches the length and depth of our slump, it’ll be fun to watch.”

The Braves were supposed to be immune to “malaise” after they acquired Kenny Lofton from Cleveland. But Lofton has been shackled by a lingering groin injury. He is back in the lineup, playing center field and hitting .340, but speed and daring on the bases, central components to his game, are missing.

The Marlins have some questions of their own. In the absence of consistent run production from Gary Sheffield and Jeff Conine, they are relying on Bobby Bonilla, Moises Alou and anyone else who can step up on a particular day.

Second baseman Craig Counsell gave the team a lift after coming over from Colorado, and catcher Charles Johnson has been a new man at the plate since his All-Star Game appearance.

The addition of Darren Daulton and Counsell and the return of Devon White from the disabled list gives Leyland’s line-up balance from the left side. And veteran Ed Vosbers, just arrived from Texas, joins Dennis Cook and Felix Heredia as lefthanded options in the bullpen.

The Marlins and Orioles will meet in an intriguing three-game series the first week of September. The Braves dropped three in a row to the Orioles in June; now, the Marlins will get a chance to see how they stack up against the best in the A.L. That’s something to look forward to, considering the Braves and Marlins won’t see each other the rest of the way.

But with apologies to the Giants, Dodgers and Astros, you can’t help but sense they are on track for a return engagement. Billy the Marlin might have to wait until late October to go fishing.

Financial squeeze

If money talks, then the Braves are saying they’re pitching-obsessed. With the signing of Greg Maddux to a five-year, $57.5 million contract, Atlanta is committed to $37 million in 1998 salary for Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Denny Neagle and closer Mark Wohlers.

G.M. John Schuerholz would love to keep center fielder Kenny Lofton, as well, but it has become apparent that the numbers don’t compute. Andruw Jones has proved he can play center field, and the Braves can’t afford to pay Lofton $10 million per year on a long-term deal.

Barring a surprise, look for Lofton to wind up somewhere in the N.L. West. He is a perfect fit for the Rockies, who need speed at the top of their order and a center fielder who can eat up some ground. The Diamondbacks also will have interest, and the signing of Lofton would be a great way for new Dodgers owner Rupert Murdoch to ingratiate himself to L.A. fans — not to mention put his team over the top.

Ya gotta have heart

Expos utilityman F.P. Santangelo has joined Rex Hudler, Dave Hollins, Jim Edmonds and Ken Caminiti on our list of favorite run-through-a-wall-type players.

Santangelo has played on cement-hard turf with a sore knee for much of the season. He has been hit by pitches a staggering 23 times. He has started games at second base, third base and all three outfield positions while being used in six different spots in manage Felipe Alou’s batting order.

Best of all, Santangelo hasn’t lost the feisty attitude that allowed him to progress from a 20th-round draft pick to a Rookie of the Year candidate in 1996.

“I’ll take you out on a double play, and I’ll run over you if you’re a catcher,” Santangelo says. “I believe that’s the way the game should be played. It ticks a lot of people off, but I’m not out there to make friends, by any means.”

Jeff Kent, branded as antisocial by the New York media, was said to be changing his image in San Francisco. Then he called Ramon Martinez an “idiot” for hitting him with a pitch, observed that Jeremi Gonzalez’s slider “sucks” and tore off Tyler Houston’s mask — a definite breach of baseball etiquette — when catcher Houston tried to play peacemaker during an altercation at 3Com Park. At this point, antisocial sounds about right. … When Bret Boone arrive on the big-league scene in Seattle, he was touted as having a big bat and a mediocre glove. It has turned out just the opposite. Boone is hitting .226 for the Reds, but he has made only two errors. “Bret Boone is the best defensive second baseman in the National League. Period. Hands down,” teammate Barry Larkin says. “The only thing he doesn’t do is backhand the ball. That’s because he’s got so much range, he doesn’t need to. He’s amazing.” It will surprise no one if Boone loses out in the Gold Glove balloting to Houston’s Craig Biggio, who has made 16 errors. But the managers and coaches typically award Gold Gloves to players having the best offensive seasons at their positions. … Mark McGwire an the Cardinals will come to Colorado for a four-game series in September. The Athletics, McGwire’s former team, will visit Coors Field for two games in late August. The trade means McGwire will get two extra games — and maybe eight more at-bats — to try and hit the longest homer known to mankind. … The Rockies have seven-figure relievers in Bruce Ruffin, Darren Holmes and Steve Reed. So it’s a little surprising to see Mike DeJean and Jerry Dipoto — combined salary of $675,000 — serving as manager Don Baylor’s principal setup man and closer. “I don’t know what anybody make,” Rockies pitching coach Frank Funk says. “All I know is, I don’t make enough.”

Hideki Irabu has a 7.36 ERA and doesn’t light up a radar gun the way people expected, but he still won three of his first five starts for New York. Hideo Nomo, Irabu’s countryman, tied a major league record with five straight no-decisions to start a career when he joined the Dodgers in May 1995. … Phillies center fielder and leadoff man Ricky Otero drove in three runs in his first 150 at-bats and failed to steal a base in his first 48 games. Translation: You’ll be seeing a lot more of Midre Cummings in center field at Veterans Stadium.

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