Marlins back in playoffs for 1st time since '03

September 26th, 2020

The Marlins and their frustrated fan base have waited 17 years to return to the postseason. On Friday night at Yankee Stadium, they were rewarded for their patience in extra innings.

Jesús Aguilar lifted a sacrifice fly in the 10th inning that carried the Marlins to a 4-3 victory over the Yankees and secured the franchise’s first playoff berth since winning the World Series in 2003.

The Marlins (30-28) clinched second place in the National League East because of their win on Friday, coupled with the Rays defeating the Phillies (28-30). The Marlins own the tiebreaker over the Phillies.

For an upstart team that has come of age during an unprecedented season, manager Don Mattingly, in his fifth season at the helm, is seeing the rewards of sticking to a plan.

“Hopefully, this is the very beginning of it,” Mattingly said. “We've got a lot of young guys coming. Our pitchers are young. We wanted to build a culture that's a winning environment, that guys like playing in, that was fun.”

The Marlins capitalized in the 10th inning after the Yankees were unable to get Monte Harrison out in a rundown between third and home on Starling Marte’s one-out grounder to short.

With the bases full in the bottom of the 10th, Brandon Kintzler got DJ LeMahieu to bounce to shortstop Miguel Rojas for the game-ending double play.

“We've got a team that plays loose,” said Kintzler, who converted his 12th save and his second in as many days. “We've got nothing to lose. We're playing with house money. We go in and make some noise. We've got a dangerous team. We have starting pitching that can pitch with anybody in baseball on any given day.”

On the field, the players celebrated, sporting “Respect Miami” T-shirts and 2020 postseason caps. The playoff drought since 2003 was the longest in the National League and second longest in the Majors, only to the Mariners, who last reached the playoffs in 2001.

On the strength of a hard-throwing young pitching staff headed by Sandy Alcantara, who gave up three runs (two earned) in 7 1/3 innings on Friday, the Marlins feel they will be tough to handle in the postseason.

“We're a dangerous team,” Kintzler said. “We really don't care if anyone says we're overachievers. Why are we overachievers? Because some experts thought that we weren't going to win? We knew we were going to win the whole time. When I first signed here, I texted Donnie and said, 'We're going to make some noise in the NL East.' I believed it because I knew the talent that we had. It just takes one group to believe together. You just never know what can happen.”

One of MLB’s surprise teams in this 60-game shortened season, the Marlins are headed to the playoffs after finishing 57-105 a year ago. The turnaround comes in the third season of the ownership group led by Bruce Sherman and chief executive officer Derek Jeter.

“When the new ownership came to the team, they had a plan,” said Rojas, the veteran leader who has been through the recent lean years. “They explained it to us. They explained it to me. They said they wanted to build it from the bottom up.”

Rojas added that vice president of player development and scouting Gary Denbo spent time at the training complex in Jupiter, Fla., flipping balls in the cages before Summer Camp started.

“That's the kind of people we're building around,” Rojas said. “I knew the direction of the team was going in the right path. I knew everything they did was with a purpose and a plan.”

The improbable playoff run was achieved after 18 players tested positive for COVID-19 in the first week of the season.

The pandemic alone caused more than half the roster to be restocked. In all, the Marlins have used 61 different players, including 25 position players and 37 pitchers. One of the pitchers was infielder Logan Forsythe, who logged an inning in a game that got out of hand.

Miami’s win on Friday came on the sixth anniversary of Jeter’s final game in pinstripes in 2014, when he delivered a walk-off hit.

The playoff berth also comes on the four-year anniversary of José Fernández’s death in a boating accident. Mattingly, a likely National League Manager of the Year Award frontrunner, choked up while reminding everyone of the emotions the organization went through four years ago on this day.

Mattingly had his share of playoff experiences while managing the Dodgers, and his steady presence has been a big part in helping establish a winning culture in Miami.

“I was in a good situation in L.A., but I wanted to come to this type of situation to help build something, and create something, almost from the ground up,” Mattingly said. “We weren't able to do it early on, but the new ownership I think has been huge -- Derek, his vision, what we were going to do, how we were going to build it to be sustainable.”