In taking season series from Braves, Marlins show continued growth

MIAMI — The National League East was considered a two-team division entering the 2014 season with the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves vying for the title.

Although the Miami Marlins sit 10.5 games back of the first-place Nationals, they have remained in the wild-card race into September and have already won six more games than in 2013. Rather than floundering in the cellar for a fourth straight year, the Marlins could finish third — or even second — if they get on a roll over the final 22 games.

In a closely contested rivalry, 11 of the 19 matchups were decided by two runs or fewer. It began in late April, when the Marlins dropped two of three by at Turner Field. A week later, they swept the Braves by outscoring them 23-7 in a three-game set.

"Obviously it’s a good thing," said third baseman Casey McGehee, who went 1 for 4 with a run Sunday. "They’ve got a good team over there, and I feel like every time we’ve played them it’s been one of those series it’s come down to a pitch or a play or whatever. I guess you can look at that as — I don’t know if the gap’s closing or whatever — but it’s definitely better than the alternative. You got to match up with those teams and hold your own, and I think we’ve done a little bit better job than probably what’s been done in the past. We’ve got a long way to go, though."

It’s another sign of progress from a young team starting a pair of outfielders in its first full season in the big leagues. Second baseman Donovan Solano is in his second full year.

Three-fifths of the rotation is 24 years old. Still, Miami has shut out an opponent 15 times this season, two more than 2013, even with 13 different starters taking the mound following the absence of ace Jose Fernandez.

Sunday was supposed to be All-Star Henderson Alvarez’s start in a rubber match with the Braves. Rather than making his scheduled outing, he pitched a bullpen to test his left oblique strain. He may return sometime this week.

Instead, lefty Brad Hand tossed six scoreless innings in what began as a pitcher’s duel with All-Star Julio Teheran.

Hand required just 21 pitches to retire the first six batters of the game. In the elusive sixth, which has haunted the Marlins to the tune of 95 runs this year, he allowed a single and double to open the frame.

Perhaps earlier in his career, Hand would’ve folded. On Sunday, he buckled down. Freddie Freeman grounded out softly to Hand. Justin Upton struck out swinging at a curveball in the dirt. Evan Gattis, who has knocked four game-winning homers against the Marlins in 2014, lined out to left.

Marlins vs. Braves

Rather than giving up the lead, Miami got a much-needed shutdown inning and swayed momentum back in its favor.

"You’re just trying to get out of that, especially when we got the lead in the fifth," said Hand, who allowed five hits on 74 pitches. "I didn’t want anybody to score there. Just bear down and just make my pitches. … After the team scores a run you want to go up there and put a zero. Teheran’s a great pitcher, he doesn’t give up many runs, so I wanted to keep the lead."

This growth seems promising for next year. Should this development continue at this pace, the Marlins could be a dark horse pick in 2015.

But there is plenty of room for improvement, starting with the final three weeks of this season. Sunday snapped Miami’s four-series losing streak. The club had not collected a series victory since taking two of three from the last-place Arizona Diamondbacks on Aug. 14-17.

Two of the series defeats — the Colorado Rockies and New York Mets — came against teams below them in the standings.

"I just think that we’re getting better," manager Mike Redmond said. "We just are. I think no doubt that we’ve battled against every team. We were able to do some things this year against them that we weren’t able to do last year for example, or haven’t done in a long time. Three out of four in Atlanta, think back to that game, even to win the overall series is huge for us. And when you talk about getting to where we need to go, we gotta beat the Braves and we gotta beat the Nationals. That’s just the way it is."

You can follow Christina De Nicola on Twitter @CDeNicola13 or email her at cdenicola13@gmail.com.