MIAMI -- A bunch of talented kids and a disciplinarian manager have turned the Florida Marlins, despite a minuscule payroll, into one of the more pleasant surprises this season.
Entering play Wednesday, the Marlins were among a handful of teams still in contention for the National League wild card. Florida (52-60) is 5½ games behind Cincinnati (58-55) and Los Angeles (58-55), who are tied for the wild-card lead.
Atlanta, which has a $90 million payroll, has the same number of victories as the Marlins, who cost their owners $14.9 in player salaries this year.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, the Marlins (41-29 since May 22) are the first team to win at least 47 of their first 100 games, after losing 29 of their first 40. Florida started with a dismal 11-31 record, seemingly confirming the multiple predictions that the team would lose 100 games this year. Some even spoke of a challenge to the New York Mets' 120 losses in 1962.
"Talent. Pure talent is what we have here," said shortstop Hanley Ramirez, one of 21 rookies who have played for the Marlins this year. "You look around here and the first impression that you might get is that there are guys here with no name or experience, but if you really stop and watch, you'll see a great combination of youth and talent."
Ramirez (25 doubles, 11 home runs and 33 steals), second baseman Dan Uggla (.291, 17 HRs and 64 RBI), first baseman Mike Jacobs (.283, 15 HRs and 56 RBI) and a starting rotation with four rookies and one 24-year-old "veteran" (Dontrelle Willis) have been the nucleus of the surprising Marlins.
For Willis, who is joined by Miguel Cabrera as the two major stars of the team, the key to Florida's improvement has been the presence of first-year manager Joe Girardi. "He is the reason the young talent has developed so quickly," said Willis. "All the successful teams, like Atlanta and the Yankees, have got a solid manager. It's no coincidence that we've adapted to him so fast."
If there were such thing as a "Rookie Manager of the Year," Girardi would be a unanimous winner. Almost all the players respect him, even some who think he is a little too strict. Girardi undoubtedly has put his mark on this team.
One example of his influence is the fact that some players, including Cabrera, chose to get military-style haircuts.
"Teams don't run on individual achievements," said Willis. "Whoever doesn't believe that is just wrong."
"Teams don't run on individual achievements. Whoever doesn't believe that is just wrong."
-- Dontrelle Willis
Last weekend, there was an important chapter in the Girardi era. The manager held a closed-door meeting for 90 minutes on Sunday after the Marlins were swept by the Dodgers. Florida made five errors in the series, and now has a major-league high 92. Ramirez leads the team in that dubious category with 17, followed by Cabrera (13) and Uggla (11).
While Girardi says he simply went over a few things with the players, who were allowed to express their opinions also, sources close to the club said that there was a heated discussion between Girardi and Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria.
Apparently, Loria was not pleased that Girardi didn't argue a ball-and-strike call with the home plate umpire when the Dodgers were erasing a 3-1 deficit and taking control of the game. Girardi had been ejected from the previous day's game.
"No one raised his voice," said Girardi, who in the first season of a three-year contract. "It was a conversation about different things. He's an owner that wants to win."
The long time the two spent behind closed doors made for some drama at Dolphin Stadium. Some radio shows even commented on a rumor that Girardi would resign from the Marlins and become a candidate to replace Dusty Baker on the Cubs. Girardi and his family live in Chicago.
Neither Girardi, Loria nor the Marlins would say whether anything out of the ordinary was said, but Girardi did acknowledge that he did speak to the owner as well as the players.
"Basically, I don't want the guys to get discouraged and put their heads down about being swept on a hot day in August," said Girardi. "The last time I spoke to the whole team was July 30 in Philadelphia. Then we scored 15 runs the next game."
And the Marlins skipper thinks the wild-card race will go down to the wire, so there's no reason to give up hope yet.
"The thing is, everybody will be playing everybody, so anything can happen," said Girardi.
Enrique Rojas is a reporter and columnist for ESPNdeportes.com and ESPN.com.