Jeter’s Marlins encouraged to be less than terrible lately

MIAMI (AP) — The question for Phillies manager Gabe Kapler was posed politely, especially by Philadelphia standards, following a loss to the Miami Marlins.

“You’re not going to beat every team every single time,” a reporter said to Kapler. “But a team like the Marlins that’s rebuilding, to get where you guys want to go, is it important to beat this team more often than not, considering where you guys are and where they are?”

Translation: How in the world did you lose to them?

That’s a question for several teams of late.

Derek Jeter’s young Marlins were widely projected to be the worst team in the National League, and perhaps the majors, but they’ve won consecutive series from the Dodgers, Rockies and Phillies. And while they’re still last in the NL East at 11-19, they’re showing signs Jeter may be onto something with his rebuilding plan.

“Those are major league players over there with the capability of beating your butt,” Kapler said.

It didn’t look that way 10 days ago, when Miami was 5-17 and on pace for 125 losses. But at one point during their recent homestand, the Marlins briefly had the longest winning streak in the majors at four games.

“Guys have done a nice job of staying positive and playing hard,” manager Don Mattingly said. “Even with our record the way it was, we were in a lot of games. Now we’re starting to figure out that we can win those games.”

For this year’s Marlins, the record doesn’t really matter. They’re still on pace to lose more than 100 games, something the woebegone franchise has somehow managed to avoid doing since 1998.

As Jeter has noted, what matters most is how many young players — especially prospects acquired in the latest payroll purge last offseason — show signs they’re keepers.

So far that list includes left-handed starters Jarlin Garcia and Caleb Smith , relievers Tayron Guerrero and Merandy Gonzalez, and third baseman-outfielder Brian Anderson .

The jury’s still out on outfielder Lewis Brinson, the most highly regarded prospect acquired last winter. He’s batting .170 but showed signs of a turnaround with a hit in five of his past six games.

Because expectations are low this season, the Marlins can afford to be patient. That’s why infielder Yadiel Rivera is on the roster even though he batted only .227 in Triple-A the past three years.

On Tuesday, Rivera delivered the game-winning pinch-hit single in the 10th inning to beat the Phillies.

“I’m happy for him,” Mattingly said. “He’s a kid we think can hit even though he has not really hit before. He has a loose swing and really works hard.”

There are other bright spots. Veterans J.T. Realmuto (.340) and Starlin Castro (.310) have played well despite their lack of enthusiasm for Jeter’s reboot. Starting pitchers Wei-Yin Chen and Dan Straily returned from injuries to provide much-needed stability, and the rotation lately has been the biggest surprise, allowing less than three runs in seven consecutive games.

Garcia has been so good that when he pitched Tuesday, the Marlins were favored by Las Vegas oddsmakers for the first time all season. The clubhouse mood seems persistently positive even with the team a perpetual underdog.

“I’ve had a lot of fun from day one,” veteran outfielder Cameron Maybin said. “We play hard every day; we’ve got a group that is fearless. It’s fun to play with guys like that. And now we’re starting to learn how to finish games.”

South Florida isn’t impressed. Attendance remains microscopic , with the franchise averaging an MLB-worst 11,125, behind even cold-weather cities.

This weekend’s series at floundering Cincinnati will be critical in the race to avoid the bottom. Some pundits still say the Marlins are baseball’s worst team.

Mattingly’s response?

“We’ll see,” he said, scrunching his face. “I don’t think there’s a lot of talking to do. There was a lot of speculation in the winter. But we’ve been throwing the baseball pretty good. We can catch it. And we’ll see. When you get the type of pitching we’ve been getting, you’re going to be in a lot of games.”

For the Marlins at this point, not being terrible would be great.

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