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Eye of the Marlin

Jose Valentin is the Comeback Player of the Year, assuming he was ever this good before. Cliff Floyd's wakeup call couldn't have come at a better time; may his alarm stay on no worse than snooze through the break. John Maine is probably looking for something to mix with his Poland Spring. Carlos Delgado needs to stretch out on a hammock or something. Jose Reyes can slide with one head tied behind his back. And Mike Pelfrey is as tall as the tales made him out to be.

The Mets make good copy, yet I spent Saturday's doubleheader amazed by the Marlins. Aren't they something?

I wouldn't be surprised if they go back to their losing ways of the first quarter of the season when they were 11-31 because that's been known to happen to overachieving youth (see the 1980 Mets [1]). Who knew at the outset of 2006 that they had ways in them that were anything but losing? I didn't give them a second thought after watching them trip over themselves in April. They had one pitcher, Willis, one player, Cabrera, about 20 clueless rookies and a handful of Wes Helmses. They played like it. We took two of two.

We caught them next in late May and were irritated that some nobody named Josh Johnson was outpitching Pedro Martinez. We beat them two out of three but it wasn't effortless.

Now, the season is older and the Marlins are older and, whaddaya know, they're on a 27-15 roll even after receiving an overdue (we were more due than them) 17-3 pummeling in the second game [2] Saturday. That's 42 games when they were hapless and 42 games that they're happening.

And Josh Johnson, who outpitched John Maine in the first game, leads the National League in earned run average.

Is it too late for Florida to sink its line into contending waters? Probably. Their surge still leaves them 12-1/2 police barricades behind us. Though they play with the hunger that Clubber Lang displayed and the reigning champ lacked in the first third of Rocky III, there's no script that's going to catapult a team nine under .500 on July 8 past one that's sixteen over, certainly not a team as callow as that one. The '06 Marlins make the '69 Mets look like grizzled vets.

But they are not too many backstrokes removed from the Wild Card, which at the moment resides in L.A. They're six behind the Dodgers. At this stage of 2003, when they won a glorious World Series, the Marlins were 5-1/2 being the Phillies for the golden ticket. Surely if we were six behind anybody with almost half a season remaining you can bet we'd be contorting ourselves through the standings at every waking moment trying to figure out how exactly we might pass the eight teams ahead of us. Six out with 78 to play is the stuff that improbable dreams are made of, but what is summer for if not to dream?

The real problem, besides the immense lack of experience (though that also means they're too young to know they're not that good) is the nine-under. The '03 Marlins were a .500 club by now. This school of Fish is never going to shake that particular piece of toilet paper off its collective sole.

We know from personal experience how a wretched start can torpedo everything else that follows. In 1997, we went 80-60 over our final 140. If only we hadn't gone 8-14 at the beginning, that would have been us Wild Carding our way through the playoffs and perhaps the World Series. Instead, it was…the Marlins.

Those adorably resilient guppies have historically morphed into fiercely fighting hellfish when they're Wild. There's something about teal that makes a man who wears it bulletproof in the tenth month of any given year. I wouldn't bet on them right now but I wouldn't overlook them, not in this final game against us, not over the next month. They could just as easily regress but it won't be for lack of hustle or determination.

If my visions seems a little Marlinsighted, it's probably because when I added up the damage at the end of Saturday, I realized we outscored Florida 19-6 and still managed to lose a game [3]. Fortunately, it was the first game, meaning we can dwell on that whale of a win in the second game as our most recent sample data.

The failure to hit in support of Maine in the opener? That was so two games ago. The latest OUCH! to Delgado? He's sat for an entire game since then, so surely he's on en route to healing. Reyes pinch-running and leading with his head into third base despite that charming splint on left hand? You can't tame a wild horse, can you? It's now appears rather likely that Jose will not start in the ASG. I blame Mike Jacobs for twisting himself into a soggy Shea pretzel, sticking his spike where Jose's hand was bound to land. A little lack of hustle or determination would be appreciated.

And how about that late dustup? Did you notice how quickly Girardi's charges rushed out of the dugout when the ump started flailing warning signals? There was nothing going on but a tiny, uh, tit…for tat, given the HBPs absorbed by C-Del and Cliff, but go tell a bunch of overeager neophytes about The Code that said Sanchez should sting Cabrera and everything would be even. They were ready to rumble like it was intramural softball and somebody had knocked over the keg.

Good to see that non-event took the fight right out of them before the sun rose on the nightcap. Liked the five in the first. Loved that it wasn't the last five they tallied as was the case against Pittsburgh Wednesday night [4]. Still rubbing my eyes from Jose Valentin — not over the seven ribbies in the first two innings but that it's the second week of July and Valentin's the starting second baseman and we're solidly in first place because of that and not in spite of that. He's been in the lineup more often than not for two months. As with the Marlins, he no longer a fluke.

Hope Cliff's big day (five RBI) means the same thing. I'm already 80% resigned to his not being re-signed after this season in light of Lastings, C-Bel and Xavier tentatively accounting for three outfield slots in 2007. I didn't want him here when we got him. Three-and-a-half years later, I'm rehearsing my regret for the day he goes somewhere else. Cliff Floyd's a Met though. A Met for the ages. The guy would be the team captain except he's too cool for shit like that. It's been depressing amid night after night of general euphoria to watch him ache or slump or both. If we get the Cliff Floyd who was our Monsta last year [5] in the second half, then it's going to be quite a finishing kick…for us this year and for him if he isn't asked back.

That leaves us Mr. Pelfrey's debut. All you need to know?

Six feet, seven inches; 22 years, six months; 96 miles per hour, 104 pitches, five innings; one win, no losses.

Mike Pelfrey is, by definition, our stopper. Upon early inspection, he's also pretty much everything for which one could have hoped. Allow for some nerves and jitters and it was a tremendous debut. Unafraid, no nibbling, stronger as his day grew longer (as if he himself could grow any longer). If he's not ready to stay on a permanent basis — John Maine, despite reminding me in aura if not stuff of John Mitchell, is more polished at this point — he will be very, very soon. He is as good as we hoped and dared to suspect.

His postgame press gaggle was almost as much fun to watch as his pitching. The kid not only answered in complete sentences (as did Milledge in May), but he never ceased smiling. Why should he? He's a big leaguer with a perfect record for a team in first place and his future has every likelihood of improving from there.

The denizens of the visitors dugout can be forgiven if they are teal with envy.