CHICAGO -- Winning baseball is never about one thing, and certainly not about one player.
The Miami Marlins are demonstrating that nicely, with the hitters surrounding early National League Most Valuable Player Award candidate Giancarlo Stanton elevating an unlikely contender that was expected to be carried by Jose Fernandez and its powerful, young pitching staff.
Fernandez was lost for the season to Tommy John surgery after a start at San Diego on May 9. Henderson Alvarez, Nathan Eovaldi and Tom Koehler have all had their moments, yet the Marlins rank in the middle of the NL in starter's ERA and in the bottom third in overall run prevention.
Yet here the Fish are on the first weekend of June, neck and neck with the Braves and Nationals in the NL East race. Let's pause to put the credit where it belongs -- on a rebuilt lineup that has been one of the NL's most productive even without its anticipated leadoff man, Rafael Furcal.
A blend of veterans and kids, the team that second-year manager Mike Redmond puts on the field every day is averaging 4.5 runs per game, second best in the NL. That's a huge change from 2013, when a downsized lineup was last in the league with 3.2 runs per game.
"Last year, no doubt, was a struggle for us, offensively especially," Redmond said. "We all got together as a group and talked about how we could improve our offense. We brought in a bunch of new guys to help the offense, and I think we've seen the benefit of that. We've brought in great clubhouse guys -- Reed Johnson, [Jeff] Baker, Garrett Jones, to surround our young guys. [Christian] Yelich and [Marcell] Ozuna are on their first tour through the big leagues. I think it's really helped. These guys at the same time have produced, had great years. Casey McGehee coming from Japan has been huge hitting behind Stanton."
At 32-30, the Marlins are on track to win 84 games, a 22-win improvement over the total last year, when they lost 100 games despite Fernandez's NL Rookie of the Year Award-winning performance. They're providing a road map for the Astros and Cubs, who previously had joined them at the bottom of the standings.
If you want to compete, you put productive players all over the field. It's as simple as that.
Yes, it helps to have a slugger mashing like Stanton is this year. He's not only hitting .305 with 17 homers and 53 RBIs, but he's also played every game, a major step forward for a guy who had missed 85 games the last two seasons. Stanton makes Miami a ton better by himself (136-165 with him since the start of 2012, as opposed to 27-58 without him). But it is the development of hitters like Ozuna and Yelich and the addition of veterans like Jones and McGehee that created enough improvement for the Marlins to become serious enough about 2014 to add relievers Bryan Morris and Kevin Gregg at midseason.
Consider this: A year ago, Stanton was the only one of Miami's primary players to produce a .710-plus OPS; this year, seven of the eight regulars had an OPS of at least .722 through 60 games, with shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria the exception.
"We're getting contributions from lots of different guys," Redmond said. "That's what you need to win ballgames. It can't be on Giancarlo every night or Ozuna or Casey McGehee. Those guys have done a great job and been very consistent, but we need contributions from everybody. We've been able to get that."
McGehee, who helped win a championship playing behind Masahiro Tanaka with the Rakuten Golden Eagles last year, doesn't give the Marlins the type of power they'd probably like behind Stanton, but he has provided protection by being a tough out. He's hitting .300 with one home run but has driven in 38. But it is the 23-year-old Ozuna who is making the biggest difference.
Ozuna played 70 Major League games last year and won a job in Spring Training. He's hitting .271 with 11 homers and 39 RBIs. Ozuna has more than offset a high strikeout total and some cold stretches by delivering big hits.
"He's a young hitter," Redmond said. "He's learning at the big league level. There's going to be some ups and downs. … His best tool for me is he has the ability to forget. If he has a bad at-bat, he's able to turn the page and come back in whatever situation it is and get a big hit the next time. He's gotten some big hits for us and had some great at-bats."
Redmond knows great at-bats. He was Ivan Rodriguez's backup in the 2003 NL Championship Series at Wrigley Field, giving him a ringside seat to watch the devastation the Marlins delivered in the Steve Bartman game. He still marvels at how the Marlins scored eight runs in the eighth inning of Game 6 after a Cubs fan hindered Moises Alou chasing a seemingly catchable foul ball.
"I felt like, really, we were beat in that game," Redmond said. "We couldn't get anything going. We were looking for a break. When that play happened, we all realized, hey, this is the break we need. Maybe this is it. And sure enough, we capitalized on it, got a ton of hits, whatever. The rest is history."
Fans still wear "Bartman 03" Marlins jerseys to games in Miami.
"It was just meant to be for us," Redmond said. "That really energized us. We beat [Mark] Prior, [Kerry] Wood and then go into Yankee Stadium and in the first game of the World Series beat Andy Pettitte. That was three pretty good pitchers for a young team. It was just destiny for the Fish. It just was. Everybody will remember that for the rest of their lives."
So could Alou have made the catch if not for the fan?
"I don't know," Redmond said. "It looked like he was close to that ball, but it's hard to say. It was close, but it was definitely in the stands. I guess that will always be the debate."