The symbolism was everywhere for the Miami Marlins on Friday night — the joy and the pain of their past, and the hope for their future.
They clinched a playoff spot by beating the Yankees, 4-3, in 10 innings at Yankee Stadium to end the longest postseason drought in the National League. The last time they had qualified, in 2003, they won the World Series for the second time in franchise history on the other side of East 161st Street in the Bronx.
The old Yankee Stadium is gone now, of course, but two former Yankee captains who starred there now guide the Marlins. Their chief executive is Derek Jeter, who played his final home game six years ago Friday, and their manager is Don Mattingly.
When he realized the Marlins had clinched — by virtue of their win and the Philadelphia Phillies’ loss to Tampa Bay — Mattingly said he immediately thought of Jose Fernandez, the star pitcher who was killed in a boating accident four years ago on Friday. The emotions washed over him, Mattingly said, as his team’s extraordinary progress sunk in.
“You keep heading down the road and believing that it’s there, and believing that it’s going to turn, and believing that we’re going to be the organization we want to be,” Mattingly said. “You have to have that faith, and that’s why this feels so good, to be able to get to this point.”
The outcome, even considering the randomness of this year’s untraditional 60-game schedule, is something close to a miracle. The Marlins had 105 losses last season, 12 more than any other N.L. team. They were also the league’s worst team in 2018.
The Marlins, in fact, had no winning seasons in the last decade — and the 2020s started ominously. Major League Baseball halted their schedule after three games in July because of an outbreak of the coronavirus. The Marlins had 20 positive cases in their traveling party and spent a week marooned in their Philadelphia hotel rooms. They needed 17 new players when they were finally cleared to return.
In such an unusual season, perhaps what followed made as much sense as anything: a five-game winning streak, a cushion that has kept them from falling more than a game below .500. When they lost by 29-9 in Atlanta on Sept. 9 — setting a N.L. record for runs allowed in a game — the Marlins recovered to win five games in a rare seven-game series with the Phillies.
“We’re resilient,” outfielder Corey Dickerson said. “We always come back after a hard loss or after being locked up in a hotel for a week straight or being without 20 of our guys. Going through all that brought us a lot closer. Being a good team, you have to depend on the guy next to you. When you play with so many different guys and you’re still able to pull these close wins out, your buy-in grows.”
Buy-in has long been a challenge for the Marlins, who won championships in 1997 and 2003 but quickly tore down both rosters to slash their payroll. Their fans have learned not to trust ownership, no matter who is in charge, and their attendance has ranked last in the N.L. in each of the last seven years.
Jeter took over as the team’s chief executive two years ago after investing in a group led by Bruce Sherman that bought the franchise for $1.2 billion. Jeter made sweeping changes but retained Mattingly, his predecessor as Yankees captain, who could be the N.L. Manager of the Year.
“If he doesn’t win that award, I will be absolutely floored,” said the Marlins television analyst Todd Hollandsworth. “I cannot imagine a manager that’s done a better job than Don Mattingly has. Every moment they’ve had the opportunity to pack it in and say, ‘We’ll be like every other Marlins team for the last 17 years,’ he just would not allow them to do it. He continues to motivate them and bring out the best in everybody.”
Hollandsworth, a reserve outfielder for the 2003 champions, said he could not think of a Marlins player who had regressed this season. Starting infielders Jon Berti, Miguel Rojas and Brian Anderson have continued to establish themselves, and the young starters Jorge Lopez, Sandy Alcantara and Sixto Sanchez had combined for 24 starts with a 3.44 earned run average entering Friday. Alcantara allowed two earned runs and struck out nine in 7 ⅓ innings on Friday.
“The new regime took over and wanted to build a sustainable winner,” said Rojas, a shortstop, who fielded D.J. LeMahieu’s grounder to start a game-ending double play on Friday. “This is the first step in that.”
Several of the best Marlins prospects are still developing, or playing only small roles in the majors. They have gotten little, so far, from the players acquired for Giancarlo Stanton, who was traded to the Yankees, and Christian Yelich, who was dealt to the Brewers. The trades of catcher J.T. Realmuto (to Philadelphia) and outfielder Marcell Ozuna (to St. Louis) have worked better, but mainly the Marlins have chosen wisely among low-priced veterans in free agency.
Dickerson, first baseman Jesus Aguilar and outfielder Matt Joyce have all helped, and the rebuilt bullpen has been the biggest separator between Miami and the Phillies, the third-place team in the division whose relief corps has been one of the worst in major league history. The Marlins’ Brandon Kintzler has 12 saves in 14 chances, and three relievers acquired to fill out the roster during the coronavirus outbreak — Richard Bleier, James Hoyt and Nick Vincent — have thrived.
“We really had talked about, ‘Hey, the team that can get over all the testing and the masks and protocols and no fans and all that stuff — and could get down to business on the field — is the team that’s going to have a better chance to move forward,” Mattingly said. “They were able to keep the focus, and the front office did a nice job bringing in some pieces to hold down the fort with guys that are still a part of the equation.”
At 30-28, the Marlins have hardly been a powerhouse. But veteran savvy, clutch pitching and resilience have made them the most surprising team in the playoff field — to everyone but themselves.
“I told our guys the other day, ‘We went into spring training and there wasn’t one expert out there that didn’t pick us last in the East,’” Mattingly said. “And our guys didn’t believe that, and that’s the main thing: it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks. If you believe in something different, you can make that happen.”