MIAMI (AP) — Jose Fernandez was discussing the Miami Marlins’ latest victory when Freddie Mercury interrupted due to someone’s cellphone ringtone.
“Weeeee are the champions,” Freddie sang.
Fernandez grew up in Cuba but knows his classic rock, so he paused, listened and laughed.
“Hopefully we’ll play that song,” he said.
The Marlins aren’t quite ready to crank up Queen’s stadium anthem, but they are making some noise. Miami won three of four games against the Chicago Cubs last weekend and began this week three games behind the NL East-leading Washington Nationals.
“Our guys are playing like magic, man,” Fernandez said. “We just beat the best team in baseball. We know there’s nothing impossible. We have a lot of guys with heart, and it’s very fun to watch.”
The Marlins haven’t reached the playoffs since 2003, when they made an improbable run to the World Series title. In the seasons since they’ve served as a perennial punchline, with constant roster turnover due to payroll purges, frequent managerial changes under impetuous owner Jeffrey Loria, and awful attendance despite their move into a new ballpark in 2012.
This year they again have modest crowds (21,002 average) and a humble payroll ($77 million). But suddenly their star power can rival almost any team, thanks to the dynamic right-hander Fernandez, $325 million slugger Giancarlo Stanton, ageless Ichiro Suzuki and two new leaders in the dugout — manager Don Mattingly and hitting coach Barry Bonds.
If that’s not enough to attract attention, their record should. At 41-35, they’re six games above .500 for the first time since June 2012.
Mattingly, accustomed to managing playoff teams with the Dodgers, isn’t exactly dazzled.
“Quite honestly, I think we should be more than six games over .500,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of games where we had leads and let teams back in. But I thought in spring training we had a good club. It’s a good group.”
Mattingly’s even-keel personality seems a good match for the Marlins’ young roster, and they’ve been surprisingly consistent. They’re assured for a winning record in June, which will be their third consecutive month above .500. The only other time the franchise began a season with three months in a row above .500 was in 1997, the Marlins’ other World Series championship season.
Is it time for Fish fever?
“There’s no fever,” team president David Samson said. “There’s nothing to celebrate yet. Our goal was to be relevant for six months. We’re closing in on our third straight month. We have three to go.”
Late-season relevance would be a first for the home team at Marlins Park, but Mattingly’s club has potential staying power. Outfielders Suzuki, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich are all hitting over .300, as are third baseman Martin Prado, second baseman Derek Dietrich and catcher J.T. Realmuto. The bullpen has been stout, with Kyle Barraclough, David Phelps and closer A.J. Ramos combining for 142 strikeouts in 103 2/3 innings.
The biggest question mark is the rotation, with frequent shaky outings when Fernandez isn’t on the mound. But the emergence of left-hander Adam Conley (4-4, 3.56 ERA) has been a plus.
“I like their team,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “They have a lot of good complementary pieces, and their bullpen is about as physical as you are going to see — really good. As their starters get better, they are going to be tough to beat.”
Now that the Marlins have avoided the awful start that sank so many previous seasons, Mattingly anticipates his team will continue to improve, with Stanton showing signs of shaking a season-long slump and All-Star second baseman Dee Gordon due to return in late July from an 80-game drug suspension.
“Coming out of spring training, you don’t want to get out of the race early,” Mattingly said. “You want to try to hit your stride as a team and stay there playing good solid baseball. We’re looking like that more and more, but there is so, so, so much baseball to be played.
“It feels good to be where we’re at, but we know there are lots and lots of big series coming.”
Big series for the Marlins? That sounds different. Maybe Freddie Mercury is onto something.
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