"I ran into a guy the other day," McKeon recalled last week. "(He said,) 'Hey, Jack, did St.Theresa give up on you?'"
The 2004 Marlins certainly don't look like a team in need of a miracle. After all, they're in a better position now than they were after 88 games a year ago before they rolled to a stunning World Series championship.
Their 45-43 record beginning the second half was the same record they had after 88 games last year. They were just 1 1/2 games out of first compared to 13 games back last year. And they've spent 82 days atop the National League East, a place last year's team never ventured.
But the Marlins opened the second half of the season as a team heading in a different direction than the 2003 team was at the break. And the players know it.
"Everything is a concern. ... We're not playing on all cylinders," said center fielder Juan Pierre, the MVP of last year's team.
"I would give us a C-minus," said third baseman Mike Lowell.
The team has gone 37-45 after starting the season 8-1. The team was a season-high 10 games over .500 on May 30 but went 15-23 until the break. The 2003 Marlins closed out their first half on a 24-14 tear that never let up.
The Marlins are financially limited to go after proven but expensive help. That's why they promoted outfielder/catcher Josh Willingham from Carolina recently, in hopes that he'll provide the same kind of spark Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis did after they were called up from Carolina last June.
"We're hoping lightning strikes again," McKeon said. "We need to get on a roll."
- RHP Josh Beckett said the blister on his right middle finger had improved enough that he thinks he'll be able to rejoin the rotation on Sunday (July 25).
Beckett, who is eligible to return from the disabled list today, said he would probably throw one more bullpen session followed by a "simulated game" in which he'd pitch to Marlins hitters instead of leaving the team to pitch in a minor league rehab start.
"To have something like that holding you back from starting, it's frustrating," he said, "especially when we're struggling the way we are I'm sitting on the bench and not being able to do anything about it."
- 3B Mike Lowell's home run Sunday (July 18) tied Derrek Lee's all-time club record of 129.
- SS Alex Gonzalez didn't start Sunday to rest a sore left hamstring that he tweaked Saturday. He was back in the lineup for games against the Mets on Monday and Tuesday.
- INF Wil Cordero, out with sore knees, should return by August 1. "That is like getting a veteran guy down the stretch to help you. Hopefully he can come back from the bench and provide some pop," GM Larry Beinfest said.
- The team is hoping Billy Koch will emerge in the second half as an effective setup man the way RHP Chad Fox (now on DL) did last year. Koch was the losing pitcher Sunday in Pittsburgh.
- Manager Jack McKeon is amazed that CF Juan Pierre has played every inning of every game this year on a team based in South Florida, where the heat and humidity take a toll on players. "You see him come out in Florida every day n the heat and run and do everything he does to stay in shape. He's a gamer," McKeon said. Pierre last sat on Sept. 21, 2003, when Gerald Williams replaced him in Atlanta in the seventh inning.
- LHP Darren Oliver last appeared in a game on June 30 when an extended rain delay in Atlanta forced A.J. Burnett out after one inning. If the Marlins don't have confidence to give him a spot start, Oliver is unsure under what circumstances he might pitch again.
- 3B Mike Lowell doesn't like writers comparing young stars to established one. "I hate labeling guys," he said. "Pablo Ozuna was supposed to be the next A-Rod and Julio Ramirez was the next Ken Griffey Jr. I need him to become Marvin Benard before he becomes Ken Griffey Jr."
- RF Miguel Cabrera marked his first All-Star Game by visiting a Houston dentist. Cabrera lost a filling in his tooth on Monday and spent Tuesday having the cavity re-filled.
HE SAID WHAT? "At 21 I was worried about getting two hits with an aluminum bat against the University of Miami. He's in another stratosphere physically and mentally." - 3B Mike Lowell, on 21-year-old Miguel Cabrera being in the All-Star Game.
The Phillies led the NL with 117 home runs in the first half of the season.
That's the bad news, because 73 of those homers came at Citizens Bank Park and 44 on the road. Which helps illustrate just what a launching pad the Phillies' new home has turned out to be.
There were 144 homers hit at Citizens Bank Park in the first half. That's by far the most in the NL; Coors Field in Denver was a distant second with 111.
In eight full seasons since the strike, no NL team that has played in the stadium in which the most homeruns have been hit has finished higher than third.
No team that played in the second most homer-friendly park has won the division outright. The 2001 Astros tied for first and the 1998 Cubs made it to the playoffs as a wild card.
And only two of eight teams that played in the park that yielded the third most home runs won the division, the 2000 Cardinals and the 2001 Diamondbacks.
Obviously, that puts a lot of pressure on pitchers to avoid making mistakes that could end up in the seats, pressure that can become cumulative as the season goes on.
"It's just hard," LHP Randy Wolf said. "Every game can be a high-scoring game. Even a good pitching staff is going to give up some fly balls that go out.
"It's no excuse but, traditionally, it's not easy to rely on out-pounding the other team every day. The short fence in center is the only place it really doesn't travel. In pitcher's batting practice, when I hit, I feel so strong."
All-Star 3B Mike Lowell of the Florida Marlins agreed.
"No lead is ever secure," he said. "You can be down, 5-2, in a hitter's park and with one decently-hit ball, you're right back in it. The whole game can change on one pitch."
NEWS & NOTES
- Manager Larry Bowa notched his 300th win as Phillies manager on Saturday. "It's nice, but getting to the playoffs is the goal," said Bowa. The franchise record is 645 by Gene Mauch.
- CF Marlon Byrd, who opened the season as the regular leadoff hitter and played his way back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, hasn't exactly turned himself around. After 102 at bats for the Red Barons, he was hitting .245 with no homers. He was also 0-for-3 in stolen base attempts.
- 3B David Bell is playing despite a strained left quadriceps but wants to stay in the lineup. "I may not be able to run 100%," he said. "And if it's something I find out is going to hurt the team, I won't play."
HE SAID WHAT? "There's no way it can be any worse." - LHP Billy Wagner, explaining why he expects the rotation to be better in the second half of the season.