Defense at forefront of Marlins' aspirations
Young squad striving for consistency through hard work on the field
MIAMI -- "Twenty-seven outs, no more."
That would be the Marlins' mantra -- engrained in each player's mind and found on workout shirts with "DEFENSE" emblazoned in bold block capital letters.
"We're not a team that really can overcome mental errors or mistakes right now," Marlins catcher Jeff Mathis said. "We're in tight ballgames every night, so it's really on us to play some error-free ball on the field and take advantage of those runs that we get or tack on at the end of the game."
Preparation hours before first pitch is instrumental in achieving the team's main goal, consistency, during a 162-game season. For a 7:10 p.m. ET game time, for example, infield coach Perry Hill instructs players in groups beginning as early as 3:15 p.m. through batting practice. The same goes for third-base coach Joe Espada's outfielders.
Hill keeps tabs of plays that should be outs and plays that get made, compiling highlights on a DVD that he gives to each player to watch over the winter. The video is supposed to refresh fundamentals and memories leading up to Spring Training.
"These guys are trying to make sure they become perfectionists at their crafts," said Hill, who has coached Gold Glove Award winners at all four infield positions.
Another key element to a solid defense is a steady voice behind the plate. Mathis has been crucial to a young pitching staff, from his body language on the field to his ability to throw runners out (37 percent).
Since June 16, Miami's starting pitchers have allowed three or fewer runs in 49 of 62 games. Mathis' catcher's ERA is 2.79.
Rookie Rob Brantly, who was optioned to Triple-A New Orleans on Aug. 8, held a 4.45 catcher's ERA with seven passed balls. He had moved his locker next to Mathis' so he could learn from the nine-year veteran, taking notes and communicating with pitchers.
Brantly's story highlights an example of the growing pains this Miami team -- complete with 10 rookie position players -- has experienced this season.
"That's something that we had a clear understanding of is that he's a young catcher, and there's going to be some hard lessons," said bench coach Rob Leary, who works with the catchers. "It wasn't for lack of preparation or caring. It's a lack of experience, and that's something he was getting and will get in the future."
Even the anchor of the defense, shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, has faced some trouble over the past 17 games. The 24-year-old has committed seven errors during that span, matching his total through his first 98 appearances. Hechavarria's .970 fielding percentage is now lowest among National League starting shortstops. Overall, the Marlins' defense has tallied 13 miscues in the last 17 games en route to a 6-11 record.
"He's played very well, and he's going to be a really good shortstop for a number of years," Hill said of Hechavarria. "There's no reason to panic because he made a couple of errors in a couple of days.
"We've played well all year. You go through a lull, whether it's fielding, hitting, baserunning, pitching. It happens every year. It just so happens it's at this particular point."
Consistency can be tough for a team that has had eight first basemen, six second basemen, four shortstops and six third basemen in 2013.
Logan Morrison, who last played first base at Triple-A New Orleans in 2010 two weeks before his callup, missed all of the spring as well as the first two months of the season while recovering from a second knee surgery. Upon his return, he had to re-learn parts of playing first, such as knowing when to retrieve the ball or how quickly certain pitchers get off the mound.
"It hasn't been too difficult," Morrison said. "I guess picks [have been the biggest challenge], because it's more reactionary. As far as ground balls and things like that, it's just getting the form back and wide -- seeing the ball going into the glove, fielding out in front of me and funneling it in. All that stuff came back reasonably quick, and if not, I can just knock it down and flip it."
Still, the Marlins rank seventh in the NL and 16th in the Majors in fielding percentage (.984), with 77 errors in 129 games.
Despite the inconsistency that can occur with a young team, it's evident that players are trying to prove themselves in the big leagues, vying for next year's spots.
Marcell Ozuna recorded eight outfield assists before a season-ending injury. Center fielder Jake Marisnick tracked down three consecutive outs on Wednesday in spacious Marlins Park against the Dodgers.
"They love it," Espada said. "They really like to play defense. They want to make a play out there. I'm always preaching to them, 'The same way you can make an impact on the offensive side of things, you can make the same impact on the defensive side.' You can have the game's big hit, but also with a big play in the ninth inning. I think they have bought into that by making plays."