MIAMI (AP) — Thanks to an All-Star ace, a solid bullpen and an abundance of .300 hitters, the Miami Marlins can savor their best record at the All-Star break since 1997.
First-year Marlins manager Don Mattingly says his job is to make sure his young team isn’t satisfied with what it has accomplished so far.
"That’s why they brought me in," said Mattingly, who led the Los Angeles Dodgers to division titles in 2013-15. "I’m very happy with the club, but I think there’s more in there. You get the feeling that everybody is really excited the club is doing this well. There is just another level, and I think our guys have it in them."
The Marlins begin the second half of the season Friday with a record of 47-41 and are tied with the New York Mets for second place in the NL East, six games behind the Washington Nationals.
"Winning the division is our goal," Mattingly said. "The wild card is not something you really want to talk about. I’d rather be leading by six than be down by six, but there’s enough time and we’ve got a good enough club."
That’s heady stuff for a franchise that was 38-51 at the break last season, hasn’t been the playoffs since 2003 and has never won a division title in its 23-year history.
Here are reasons a first-place finish might happen in 2016, or might not:
OFFENSIVE UPGRADE: 2015 NL batting and stolen base champion Dee Gordon is expected to return July 28 from an 80-game suspension for a positive drug test. He will move into the leadoff spot for a lineup with five players batting over .300 at the break, the most in the majors since 1999. That does not include fourth outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, who is batting a team-high .335 and is 10 hits from 3,000.
Gordon would not be eligible to play in the postseason.
JOSE’S LIMITATIONS: Ace Jose Fernandez hasn’t pitched a full season since his rookie year in 2013, and the Marlins plan to limit him to about 180 innings. He’s at 107 1/3 already, so he won’t make his next start until week, giving him at least seven days’ rest.
Fernandez is also expected to skip a turn later this year, with the goal of having him still available in late September.
"I would rather do it that way and have him all year," Mattingly said. "You have a good team and feel you have a chance to make the playoffs, and you don’t want to have your best guy shut down."
STARTER NEEDED: Contention has made the Marlins buyers for a change as the trade deadline approaches, and they’re shopping for a starter to shore up a rotation that’s shaky after Fernandez.
But as usual the market for starters is tough, and the Marlins have few top prospects for bargaining.
"It’s extremely challenging right now," president of baseball operations Michael Hill said. "There are not a large number of sellers. Hopefully well be able to get something done."
SLUGGER’S SURGE: Giancarlo Stanton won the All-Star Home Run Derby with a record 61 homers, the latest sign he’s emerging from a prolonged slump. He said he’s not worried the derby might mess up his swing.
"Have you seen my swing the first half?" he said.
Stanton was batting .193 on June 15 and is on pace for a career-high strikeout total. But he hit five homers in the final five games before the break, increasing his season total to 20, and has raised his average to .233.
INTRADIVISION RECORD: The Marlins are 16-24 within the NL East and 31-17 against the rest of the majors. It would help their chances of a division title if they could figure out how to beat the last-place Atlanta Braves, who have gone 8-4 against Miami.