Picked by many to be among the best of the National League East before the season began, Ozzie Guillén's Marlins were looking up at the rest of their divisional foes.
Sitting in the division's cellar didn't sit well with the first year manager in Miami, especially as they were about to break out of a funk in which they had just lost for the eighth time in nine games.
Guillén knew his club's talent didn't mirror the 9-14 record in the standings. They answered their manager's call to turn things around and on May 1 by starting a seven-game winning streak.
We've hit much better. I think that was the difference. At the beginning of the season we weren't hitting. Jose Reyes started hitting. Hanley (Ramirez) started hitting. We suffered a setback with (Emilio) Bonifacio but I think we've overcome that.
A month later, the Marlins are coming into the first of three against the Atlanta Braves having won 23 of their last 32 games. They've won eight of their last 11 series, losing only one and drawing a pair of two-game sets.
“We've hit much better. I think that was the difference. At the beginning of the season was we weren't hitting. José Reyes started hitting. Hanley (Ramírez) started hitting. We suffered a setback with (Emilio) Bonifacio but I think we've overcome that,” Guillén told Fox News Latino after another series win, this time on the road against the struggling Philadelphia Phillies.
“(Giancarlo) Stanton is having an incredible month and out pitching has answered for us. Our closer in on his way to becoming who he is. I think that's one of the most important factors.”
During Miami's stretch, free agent acquisition Mark Buhrle has gone 4-1 in six starts, including 4-0 in five starts during their hot month of May. Another free agent that joined the South Florida movement and traded the beaches of San Diego for the ones out in Miami, Heath Bell, struggled out the bullpen at first, but has saved nine straight games.
Defending league batting champ José Reyes hit only .220 in April and maybe the pressure of producing and justifying that big deal he got in a win now environment that never existed in Miami took a toll after the Marlins hooked him and reeled him away from the New York Mets. But Reyes flipped the page once May rolled around.
The shortstop is in the middle of a 14-game hitting streak, going 22-for-59 (.373), pushing his average up to .278 but still away below a .337 clip that won him the batting crown on the final day of last season.
“He's swinging the bat good but also hitting the ball hard. I don't expect anything less from him,” Guillén said. “He's not the batting champion just because. This kid is a great hitter. If he stays healthy I think he's going to help this ballclub.”
Just like Reyes, Ramírez struggled in April hitting .220 with four homers and 13 RBI. May woke him up as Ramírez went 38-for-118 with four home runs and drove in 20 runs. Guillén said this was largely due in part to being able to swing at more balls in the strike zone instead of chasing bad pitches.
One of the most pleasant surprises has been the reemergence of Carlos Zambrano. You could see that it wasn't working anymore in Chicago and leaving the friendly confines of Wrigley Field was the best thing that could have happened to the Big Z.
Sunday in Philadelphia he looked like the Zambrano of old dominating the opposing lineup and helping with his bat, homering for the first time this season.
“I told the Marlins I don't know what kind of performance we're going to get from him. On the field and off the field I would control him. I mean this kid I know him very well,” Guillén said.
Zambrano has given the Marlins a chance to win in all but one of his previous seven starts. He's gone 4-1 during that time.
“I think I talked to you guys, I talked to people in Chicago; I thought this guy would have a great year this year. I'm glad he did it for us.”
To win in the NL East, the Marlins are going to have to keep on playing the rest of the way just like they did in May. All of the teams in the division sport a .500 or better winning percentage. The Washington Nationals, yes the Nationals, and the Marlins are tied for first place but the Nats are ahead by just .003 percentage points – the only difference is two extra games played by the Marlins.
Guillén knows it won't be a walk in the park.
“This division is difficult enough. This division reminds me of when I started my years in Chicago in 2004, 2005 because the division was strong. This division's pitching is too extraordinary. You already see it in the standings.”