Who are these makeshift Marlins and how are they leading the NL East?

At this point in the season, almost two weeks after the first pitch was thrown of the 2020 MLB campaign, the NL East standings are a jumbled mess. 

The Braves and Mets have played 13 games each. The Nationals have played nine. The Marlins and Phillies have played only six. It’s bizarre. The division standings look like they belong to a recreational kickball league, where a couple of unlucky teams had too many 8 p.m. games on their schedules that were washed out by late, vindictive thunderstorms. 

The strangest thing, though, just might be the fact that the Marlins — a team that lost 105 games last year and was projected to finish last in the division by pretty much everyone and the club that had 18 players test positive for COVID-19 a couple days into the season — are sitting up there in first place. 

Sure, it’s early. And sure, they’ve only played six games, but Miami is 5-1, a half-game ahead of the 8-5 Braves, 2 1/2 ahead of the 4-5 Nationals, 3 ahead of the 2-4 Phillies and 3 1/2 ahead of the 5-8 Mets. 

Will the success last? Who knows? And, frankly, who cares at this point? The Marlins’ 2020 story is already pretty fascinating. So let’s take a look at these Marlins: What’s happened so far, who’s actually healthy and on the active roster and how in the world they’re off to a 5-1 start.

COVID roster complications

We have to start here, of course. The Marlins opened their season in Philadelphia, splitting the first two games. The club knew of positive tests before the third game, but the team voted via text messages to play anyway — yikes — and beat the Phillies, 11-6, on Sunday, July 26. Turns out, the problem was much more widespread than they had feared. The final count had 18 players — of the 30-man roster — testing positive for the coronavirus. 

They wouldn’t play again until Aug. 4, but more on that in a moment. 

Losing that many players to the virus meant the roster had to be overhauled. These 11 players were placed on the injured list on Aug. 4: pitchers Sandy Alcantara, Jeff Brigham, Robert Dugger, Yimi García, Nick Neidert, Ryne Stanek, Adam Conley and Caleb Smith, along with position players Chad Wallach, Sean Rodríguez and Miguel Rojas.

Yeah. And this litany of corresponding moves to fill out the active roster happened the same day. 


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COVID schedule complications

The Marlins were supposed to return home after the Philly series for a quick two-game set against the Orioles. Then, after two games in Baltimore, it was supposed to be back home for three against the Nationals and three against the Phillies. 

The Orioles games — in Florida and in Maryland — were postponed, as was the series in Miami against the Nationals, as the Marlins remained sequestered in their hotel in Philadelphia. And then the schedule was altered so that, instead of playing the Phillies at home (as originally planned) Aug. 4-6, the Marlins trekked to Baltimore to make up the four games against the Orioles — with the Marlins technically as the home team for two of them, meaning they hit in the bottom of each inning. 

They’ll play the fourth game on Thursday evening, then play three in New York against the Mets, then two in Buffalo against the Blue Jays. The series against psuedo-Toronto is sandwiched between two off days, which will be welcome. 

Then, finally, they’re scheduled to host the Braves — in Miami — for three games starting Aug. 14. If you’ve been following along, you realize that’s 11 games to start the season played in road ballparks, but more importantly 21 days away from home. 


So how are they 5-1?

Even though the Marlins lost 105 games last year — 13 more than any other NL squad — and even though they were picked to finish last in the NL East by pretty much everyone, there were reasons for optimism this year. The PECOTA projections, for example, still projected them to finish last in the NL East, but with 71 wins, a big jump from 57 last year. 

So there’s talent building in the organization. 

But, again, of the 11 players placed on the injured list, eight of them were pitchers. Somehow, though, in the first three games in Baltimore, the Marlins pitchers held the Orioles to a single run over 23 innings (two seven-inning double-headers in that mix). The staff’s scoreless streak reached 21 innings before the Orioles finally pushed across a single run in the sixth inning of the third game. 

Five of the pitchers acquired/called up on the Aug. 4 flurry combined to throw 6 1/3 innings in the three games, with only one run allowed. 

“Our pitching has been incredible,” young Marlins veteran Brian Anderson told reporters. “I don’t know how they go from throwing into a (hotel) mattress to going out and getting big league hitters out like that, but whatever they’re doing we’ve got to keep doing it.”

And when your pitchers allow one run in three games, it’s pretty easy to win all three games. 

Olympic Eddy has arrived

The Aug. 4 flurry of moves featured interesting names, including two pitchers named Josh Smith, and Monte Harrison, a top prospect in the Marlins’ organization who is also the brother of NBA guard Shaquille Harrison.

But the most fascinating story belongs to Eddy Alvarez. Before he started on his journey to the majors, the now 30-year-old rookie was an Olympic speed-skater. Alvarez, who is from Miami — not exactly a speed-skating hotspot — made the 2014 U.S. Olympic team and was part of the silver-medal winning 5,000-meter relay squad.  

“Baseball is my true passion,” Alvarez told Sports Illustrated recently. “Skating was more of a short-term goal.”

Alvarez started his baseball journey after the Olympics, signing with the White Sox as a 24-year-old amateur free agent in June 2014. He played five years in that organization, spending the 2018 season at Triple-A Charlotte, where he posted a .783 OPS and eight homers in 101 games. Late in March of 2019, the Marlins purchased Alvarez, and he thrived with his new franchise. 

Alvarez, in 66 games at Triple-A New Orleans, batted .323, hit 12 homers and stole 12 bases

When he made his big-league debut in Baltimore (he went 0-for-5 in the games), Alvarez became the first Winter Olympics medalist ever to play in an MLB contest. 

That’s pretty darn amazing, in any year. 

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