Shrewd moves paying off for Marlins

They didn't get big headlines, but the Marlins' midseason acquisitions have paid huge dividends.

Updated: September 25, 2003, 4:55 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- They never thought they'd be here, riding the Wild Card Express on the same field where Dan Marino and Don Shula once roamed.

Ugueth Urbina
Ugueth Urbina will bring stability to Detroit's bullpen next year.
Six months ago -- heck, THREE months ago -- Chad Fox, Jeff Conine and Ugueth Urbina probably thought there was about as much chance they'd find themselves on the moon in the last week of September as in Pro Player Stadium.

But sometimes it's the deals you make and the guys you pluck out of the waiver-wire bargain bins that decide who makes the playoffs and who doesn't. And as the Florida Marlins nudged themselves one day closer to October with a 6-5 win over the Philadelphia Phillies on Wednesday night, it was hard not to think about that.

For the second straight night, in the biggest regular-season series in Marlins history, the difference between the Fish and the Phillies was three Marlins who started the season somewhere else -- Conine, Fox and Urbina.

It was Conine's third homer against the Phillies in a week that accounted for the eventual winning runs. It was Fox's three humongous outs, with the tying run on base, that pulled the plug on a five-run Phillies' eighth inning that almost wrecked the party.

And it was Urbina's 1-2-3 ninth that wrapped this baby up -- and undoubtedly assured that when the playoffs begin, it will be him, not Braden Looper, closing for these Marlins.

Maybe you can think of three midseason acquisitions by some other team out there who have had more impact on their club this year than these three guys -- "but I can't think of anybody," said Marlins manager Jack McKeon. "That's why, to me, (GM) Larry Beinfest deserves the executive-of-the-year award."

Well, we'll leave that call for baseball's electoral college. But when you look back at the moves these two teams made in July and August, they could be the single biggest reason the Marlins -- who trailed in this race as recently as last weekend -- suddenly lead the Phillies by three games with four to play.

In July, when the Phillies were roaring into the wild-card lead and the Marlins were still trying to stay on the high side of Mount .500, both of these teams traded for somebody else's closer.

The Marlins got Urbina from Texas. The Phillies got Mike Williams from Pittsburgh. Since those deals, Urbina has a 1.45 ERA, while Williams has a 5.87 ERA.

Later, as the clock ticked toward midnight on the last day of August, the Marlins and Phillies both traded for one final bat for the stretch drive.

The Marlins got Conine from Baltimore. The Phillies got Kelly Stinnett from Cincinnati. Since those deals, Conine has batted just .230 -- but three of his four homers and eight of his 12 RBI have come against the Phillies. Stinnett, meanwhile, has come to the plate only six times for the Phillies.

And then there was Fox. He was abruptly released by the Red Sox at the trading deadline to make room on the roster for Scott Williamson, even though Fox had just been clocked at 97 miles per hour in his appearance the night before. Five contending teams tripped all over themselves to sign him.

The Phillies, not knowing that Terry Adams was about to need elbow surgery or that Jose Mesa was going to self-destruct, passed. The Marlins didn't. Fox now has a 2.19 ERA as a Marlin and has evolved into their most important set-up man. Asked if he ever could have envisioned this twist in his story that day the Red Sox released him, Fox laughed.

"Never," he said. "Not at all. A couple of months ago, I was leaving Arlington, Texas, in tears, thinking my career was pretty much over. That three-hour drive from Arlington to (his home in) Houston that night was the longest drive of my life. So when these guys called, it was a blessing. I feel now like somebody was looking out for me."

It may not have looked then like a phone call that would change the face of the wild-card race. But you never know which little entry in the transactions column will wind up deciding the biggest games of the year. (For reference, we refer you to last September: ANAHEIM ANGELS -- recalled pitcher Francisco Rodriguez.) And this year, the Marlins are living proof.

When they made the Urbina trade in July, the consensus in baseball was that they'd given up too much. Gone was Adrian Gonzalez, once the first pick in the entire draft, and highly regarded pitching prospect Ryan Snare.

Then, a month and a half later, after Mike Lowell broke his hand, they dealt another top pitching prospect, Denny Bautista, for Conine. Again, people wondered if the return was worth the price. But McKeon wasn't one of them.

"I sat there in those meetings, and guys said, 'Hey, these are good prospects,'" McKeon said Wednesday night. "But we finally said, 'Hell, are we going to go for it or not?' You only get so many chances. So if you're going to go for it, you can't let prospects stand in the way.

"We've got a tremendous opportunity here to revitalize interest in this team in this area. Which we have. They're getting excited now. They're talking baseball instead of football. And if this continues, it could lead to more good things -- like a stadium."

The stadium they play in now may be known as The House Marino Built. But the baseball team that plays in it these days has the look of a team that could keep playing well into football season.

They fired out to a 6-0 lead Wednesday after six innings. And it looked for a while as if they might be able to finish off this game -- and the Phillies -- without even needing Fox or Urbina.

But then starter Josh Beckett -- working on a two-hit shutout -- abruptly hit the wall, starting the seventh with two straight walks. And out stomped McKeon to give a lecture full of words you won't be hearing on Sesame Street any time soon.

"I see him coming out," Beckett said, "and I look out in the bullpen and there ain't nobody warming up. And I said, 'Ohhhhh... (fill in colorful adjective here)... He wasn't too happy with me. And I wasn't too happy with myself. He should have just bent me over his knee and spanked me."

But that, it turned out, wasn't the only significant conversation going on at the time. While McKeon was lecturing Beckett on challenging hitters, pitching coach Wayne Rosenthal was phoning the bullpen, just to see if Fox was available -- even after pitching four times in the previous six days. Fox sent word he was fine, if needed.

But an inning later, the first four Phillies reached base, the lead shrank to 6-2. And still Fox wasn't warming up. So out marched McKeon again to bring in Michael Tejera to face Bobby Abreu and Jim Thome. Meanwhile, Rosenthal was ringing the bullpen a second time.

"Yeah, they wanted to talk to me," Fox said. "Coxie (bullpen coach Jeff Cox) answered it and said, 'It's for you.' I said, 'Just tell them I'm fine.' I'm not getting on the phone out there. I jump up enough to get the phone at home. I don't need to talk on it out in the bullpen."

Fox began heating up furiously, as Tejera was giving up a two-run single to Abreu and walking Thome. Then out walked the manager one more time, and in he came.

The first hitter Fox faced, Mike Lieberthal, mashed a 2-2 slider to the track in left-center that looked, for a moment, like a game-tying double. But Conine barely hauled it into the webbing of his glove, turning it into a sacrifice fly that cut the lead to only 6-5. It was an out , though. And after Fox had finished wriggling out of the inning with the lead intact, Conine's catch -- and the deal that made him a Marlin -- began looming larger than ever.

"It's stuff like that," Fox said, "at times like this, that become your little magic moments. If we win this thing, we're going to look back at plays like that and think, 'That's what got us here.'"

Oh, what got them here, of course, was far more than that catch. It was Jack McKeon and Dontrelle Willis, dropping out of the sky. It was Mike Lowell's career year. And the maturation of Beckett and an all-potential rotation. And the spectacular top-of-the-order little ball played by Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo.

But what also got them here was the trades they weren't afraid to make. And the released relief pitcher they weren't afraid to sign. And the magic potion that somehow glued it all together.

You never know what that secret formula is until after it works. But the Florida Marlins proved one more time Wednesday night that in the games that matter most, their formula is working just fine.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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