<
>

Marlins are finding their way under Don Mattingly

The Marlins are playing well, and Marcel Ozuna is one of the reasons why. Hunter Martin/Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA -- Six weeks into Don Mattingly's tenure as Miami Marlins manager, he's looking like an inspired choice. The Marlins have a 21-18 record despite a 5-11 start, and they've done their part to turn the National League East into a four-way scrum. The Miami players rave about Mattingly's approachability and people skills, and they credit him with helping the team navigate the potentially devastating loss of second baseman and leadoff hitter Dee Gordon to an 80-game PED suspension in late April.

Mattingly is also earning positive reviews from owner Jeffrey Loria, who praised the team's new manager in a brief dugout interview during the team's three-game series against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park this week.

"He's been terrific," Loria said. "He's so intelligent, and he has great leadership skills. He's been great for the team."

Because of an impressive nucleus of young position players and power arms and the presence of two dominant players on the 25-man roster, some scouts and talent evaluators thought in spring training that the Marlins had sleeper potential. Right fielder Giancarlo Stanton is tied for third in the National League with 11 home runs, and pitcher Jose Fernandez has 69 strikeouts in 47⅔ innings and was just named NL Player of the Week.

Before the series opener Monday, Mattingly reflected on a sequence of events that prompted him to think the team could be dangerous this season. He made phone calls to several Marlins after agreeing to a four-year contract in late October, and he was struck by the players' resolute tone after several years of adversity and chaos. The Miami organization employed six managers from 2010 through 2015, and things got especially weird last year when the team fired Mike Redmond in May and replaced him with general manager Dan Jennings in a notoriously outside-the-box move.

"When I talked to these guys over the winter, I was surprised how confident they were," Mattingly said. "They were like, 'We've got a good team.' Through all the things that went on last year, they kind of came together. They ended up bonding and grouping.

"I was encouraged when I spoke to them, because they believed they could be good. That's No. 1. I think the timing is right for some of these guys."

The Marlins are encouraged by how well the team's young position players have performed under Mattingly and the new hitting coach tandem of Barry Bonds and Frank Menechino. Marcell Ozuna, the subject of multiple offseason trade rumors, ranks sixth among MLB center fielders with an .864 OPS. First baseman Justin Bour has seven homers and a .491 slugging percentage. J.T. Realmuto ranks second to Yadier Molina among MLB catchers with a .320 batting average. And Christian Yelich, whose 2015 season was at times interrupted by back problems, has the look of a future batting champion.

With input from the players, Mattingly has helped lighten the mood by bringing a touch of Joe Maddon to the proceedings. The Marlins added a Ping-Pong table to the clubhouse in spring training, and they broke up the boredom by staging a Clubbie Olympics in Jupiter, Florida, with clubhouse attendants taking part in events ranging from towel-folding to building a "human cheeseburger." The Marlins held a family day in spring training, complete with burgers on the grill and bounce-houses for the little ones, and they've taken to pranking each other with masks during postgame TV interviews.

The loss of Gordon to an early PED ban threatened to interrupt the reverie. Gordon won a Gold Glove and a batting title last season, and his suspension, coming at the end of a four-game sweep over the Los Angeles Dodgers, was the type of disruptive event that could send a team off the rails. But Derek Dietrich has filled in nicely at second base, and the Marlins are 11-7 since Gordon's ban.

In hindsight, Mattingly didn't have to say much in response to the loss of Gordon, because he had already prepared the players for the ups-and-downs of a 162-game season during spring training. He gave them a five-minute reminder of his spring message on April 29 in Milwaukee, and that was the extent of it.

"He did a great job, man," said third baseman Martin Prado, who is hitting .374 through Miami's first 39 games. "He told us from the get-go in spring training, 'There will be a lot of things going on that we have to overcome.'

"He told us to avoid excuses and come to the field every day to win a game, because that's all we can control. We have so many young guys here, but it's not about developing players anymore. We need to have the mentality that we have to win every night. That's the mentality he's created."

Loria remains a convenient target for fan and media abuse, but he has quietly overseen changes to the leadership and coaching hierarchy that bode well for the long term. The Marlins pulled off a coup in October when they brought in former Pittsburgh Pirates pitching guru Jim Benedict as their new "vice president of pitching," and they took a major step to improve the farm system when they hired Pirates scout Marc DelPiano, a former Marlins talent evaluator, as vice president of player development. And Mattingly and Bonds have been welcome sounding boards to the team's young hitters in the early going.

It might take a while before the positive vibe is reflected in ticket sales. The Marlins rank last in the National League with an average attendance of 20,169 fans per game. But if the empty seats are disconcerting, the new-found sense of serenity fostered by Mattingly is refreshing.

"He doesn't panic," Yelich said. "He's even-keeled every day, and we all feed off that. It's nice to have stability around here for once, because that's something we haven't really had here in a while. "

Obstacles remain. The farm system is thin, and if Stanton, Yelich or Ozuna go down, it might do wonders for Ichiro Suzuki's pursuit of 3,000 hits -- he's currently 51 hits short -- but the Marlins don't have the bodies to withstand a significant injury.

Just don't try telling the Miami players they're a year or two away from contention. They're tired of that narrative.

"It's always been, 'We're going to have a good team next year, or in a couple of years.' Or, 'We're building something here,"' Yelich said. "But there comes a time when the building has to be done. You've got to finish it off. I think that's the phase we're starting to enter. If all our guys stay healthy and we keep playing the way we are, I like our chances."

Mattingly, who was 24 years old when he won a Most Valuable Player award with the Yankees in 1985, is similarly inclined to question the conventional wisdom that a fade is inevitable. In five years as the Dodgers' manager, he dealt with high expectations stemming from a gargantuan payroll. Now he's entrusted with bringing stability to an organization known for its turbulence and with leading the Marlins back to relevance as nurturer-in-chief.

For what it's worth, he appears to be having a blast.

"I'm enjoying it," Mattingly said. "I want to teach. I want to build. That's the fun part of this game with young guys -- teaching them and letting their talents come out and trying to help them be better. It's a challenge, but I love it.

"It all goes back to the players. We've got a good group of players and coaches here who have been through some stuff, and we know these guys are good. Are we going to be good enough? We'll see. But why not?"