No ifs, ands or buts about it, tonight’s showdown between the Florida Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies is the biggest game of the young season for the Fish.
Too early for a big game, you say? I say, game 35 is just as important as game 162 — and there’s a heckuva lot less stress now vs. needing a win in the final week with a wildcard berth at stake. Besides, every game against the Phillies is big because this is the team the Marlins must beat to have a shot at making the playoffs.
The Marlins need to be hungry and aggressive tonight, and they need a playoff atmosphere from the fans. Unfortunately, South Florida hasn’t tuned into how good its hometown team really is … yet. Probably has something to do with the Big Three down the road a bit. But since Heaters James, Wade and Bosh have an off night from beating on rival Boston, there’s a good chance more eyeballs will be watching tonight’s game. (Hopefully, more Marlins fans than Phils fans will show up tonight, too. Only 11,444 were at last night’s game. C’mon Florida fans, fill those seats!)
Why is this such a big game? Besides matching up two of the best pitchers – Josh Johnson vs. Roy Halladay – the Marlins need this W to continue to be a part of the contender conversation. After a smoking-hot 18-9 start, the Fish have gone 2-5, including their first three-game losing streak of the season and their first series loss since opening 1-2 against the Mets. Superstar Hanley Ramirez continues to baffle with his lack of average and power, the four and five starters continue to disappoint and the bullpen has showed signs of fallibility (as well as the inability to navigate hotel staircases). As a fan, you have to wonder how this team has gone 20-14 with the daily inconsistencies.
Johnson (3-1, 1.68 ERA) has been all-universe (despite the shaky last outing), Ricky Nolasco (3-0, 3.23 ERA) has been dominant at times and Anibal Sanchez (2-1, 3.46 ERA) has flirted with two no-hitters. Awesome. On the other hand, Chris Volstad (2-2, 5.73 ERA) and, especially, Javier Vazquez (2-3, 6.88 ERA) have been horrible. You can’t be relevant when your fourth and fifth starters have a combined 6.34 ERA. And if Vazquez continues to give up runs and losses in the number-five spot, he will put even more pressure on Johnson to be the stopper. I’m starting to think the Vazquez experiment is over. He was acquired to be an innings eater in the middle of the rotation, but he has been little more than a BP pitcher for opposing teams.
Despite all the praise heaped on Ramirez (.205 BA, 1 HR, 13 RBI) and Mike Stanton (.236 BA, 5 HR, 14 RBI) as Marlins to watch in 2011, Gaby Sanchez (.341 BA, 6 HR, 23 RBI) has emerged as the team’s biggest offensive threat. Sanchez was named NL Player of the Week last week after hitting .468 with three doubles, two homers and 10 RBIs. He continued his torrid streak last night by going three-for-four with a double, home run and three RBIs. While Ramirez continues to hover around the Mendoza Line, his two hits last night could (hopeful) be a signal that the tide is changing. While I won’t have visions of two-for-four dancing in my head against Halladay, a key hit from Hanley would sure go a long way in restoring his confidence, as well as the team’s and fans’ confidence in him.
And if the Marlins didn’t have enough incentive going into tonight’s game, there’s the revenge factor. The last time JJ faced Doc in South Florida, Halladay walked off the field with a 1-0, 11-strikeout, perfect-game victory. Johnson was no slouch in the game either, giving up the game’s only run in seven innings of work, while walking one and striking out six.
A key for the Marlins tonight will be getting to Halladay early and forcing manager Charlie Manuel to go to the bullpen. In Halladay’s lone loss this year, he pitched 6.2 innings but gave up 10 hits and six earned runs – which is stunning because he’s only given up seven earned runs in his six other starts combined.
Another ethereal pitching effort from Johnson, along with key hits from Gaby Sanchez, Ramirez and Stanton against a marquee pitcher could help convince the baseball establishment, Florida fans, the Phillies and the Marlins, too, that the Fish are for real. So, yeah, I think it’s a pretty big game.