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Off the Hook

An October finish isn't out of the question for the Marlins, who can go young arm for young arm with anyone

In a baseball season so far marked by sadness and loss with the deaths of Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart, Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas and ex--Tigers' pitcher Mark Fidrych, the Marlins have done their best to provide a happy distraction. Picked by most to finish a few games above or below .500, the Marlins were 11--1 through Sunday, thanks to a starting rotation that may finally have the combination of talent, experience and good health to threaten the Mets and the Phillies at the top of the NL East.

Righthander Josh Johnson, 25, outdueled the Mets' Johan Santana on April 12, going the distance in a 2--1 win. Johnson missed all but four starts in 2007 and the first half of '08 with a strained forearm and then an injured elbow that required Tommy John surgery. At week's end he had a stellar 7-to-1 strike-out-to-walk ratio in '09, showing the power stuff that helped him finish fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting in '06.

Righthander Chris Volstad was the Marlins' top pick in 2005 and made his major league debut a bit more than three years later. Volstad is a 6'8" command pitcher who has succeeded in the majors despite unimpressive peripheral statistics, walking 38 batters unintentionally in his first 96 1/3 career innings. He also allowed just four homers in that time, an exceptional rate for a pitcher who has not kept the ball on the ground all that well.

What baseball is seeing from the two pitchers this season isn't something new; it's an extension of the work they did down the stretch in '08. Through July 9 the Marlins had allowed 5.2 runs per game. Johnson came off the DL to start against the Dodgers on July 10, and Volstad made his first start the next night. Together they helped reduce the Marlins' runs allowed by nearly 20% through the rest of the season. Add in a healthy Anibal Sanchez, who missed most of the last two years with a torn right labrum; last year's sensation, Ricky Nolasco; and an improved Andrew Miller, and you have an outstanding young rotation, all under 27, all with considerable upside.

An improved bullpen helps ensure that the Marlins will be less reliant on their rotation than in recent seasons. Holdovers Logan Kensing and Renyel Pinto have been joined by Leo Nuñez (acquired from the Royals in the Mike Jacobs deal) and Kiko Calero, a strong command pitcher who's coming back from shoulder problems that cost him most of '08. They pitch in front of flamethrowing closer Matt Lindstrom. All told, the Marlins' pen has a 37-to-20 strikeout-to-walk ratio through Sunday and allowed just two homers in 42 1/3 innings, a decided factor in their quick start.

Young teams are volatile, and the young Marlins have put together hot streaks in each of the past three seasons, only to finish down in the standings each time. This roster, however, has more talent than any Marlins team since the World Series winners of 2003, and it has opened the year by putting a hurt on not just the Nationals, but also the Mets and the Braves. The lineup could still use some patience, and the defense is subpar, but the arms are top-grade. The NL East will be a four-team race.


Walk Tall

The Angels' slow start is understandable given the losses they've suffered so far, most notably Adenhart's death. Three starting pitchers and rightfielder Vladimir Guerrero are on the DL. A team that has relied on contact hitting, aggressive baserunning and strong run prevention may have to find new ways to win. That's what makes the start of Chone Figgins so intriguing. Coming into '08, Figgins (below) had walked in just 9% of his career plate appearances, but through Sunday he had already drawn 12 bases on balls in 55 appearances, a fantastic 22% walk rate. Figgins has improved that rate every year, and if he can continue to have a high OBP—it's currently .418—at the top of the order, it would go a long way toward delivering another AL West title to the Angels.

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NO JOSHING Johnson has added velocity and an ace's command since having elbow surgery.