The budget-conscious Florida Marlins used a young, talented group of players to become surprise contenders for a large part of the season. Apparently, they have a crop of promising prospects ready to help next year, too.
After getting a big game at the plate from a couple of rookies, the Marlins look to continue their dominance at Washington this season as they conclude a three-game set with the Nationals on Thursday night.
Florida (82-76), which had by far the lowest opening-day payroll at $22 million, was in first place in the NL East early in the season before falling off and officially getting eliminated from playoff contention Tuesday night.
After deciding not to go after pricey free agents, the Marlins will finish with a winning record for the first time in three years thanks largely to perhaps the most talented young group of players in the majors. With four games remaining, the Marlins now have a chance to showcase a couple of players that may get a chance to contribute in 2009.
Top prospects Cameron Maybin and Gaby Sanchez combined for six hits in Florida's 9-4 win over Washington (59-99) on Wednesday night, giving the Marlins seven wins in eight road games versus the Nationals.
The Marlins gave Sanchez - the club's minor league player of the year in 2006 - his first major league start and he responded by going 3-for-5 with two doubles and an RBI. Florida manager Fredi Gonzalez thinks Sanchez is close to being ready for full-time duty in the majors.
"You hate to put any kind of pressure on anybody, but he's close," Gonzalez said of the 25-year-old first baseman. "With the year he had in Double-A, and what we saw in spring training, I think the man is close."
Sanchez, a fourth-round draft pick in 2005, was the MVP of the Southern League after hitting .314 with 17 homers, 42 doubles and 92 RBIs at Double-A Carolina.
Maybin - Sanchez's teammate at Carolina this season - went 3-for-3 plus a sacrifice bunt to raise his average to .500 (14-for-28). The 21-year-old center fielder was one of the players Florida acquired last offseason when it sent Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to Detroit.
Now, the Marlins will put one of their gifted young pitchers on the mound, with Anibal Sanchez (2-5, 5.57 ERA) getting the start.
Sanchez left Florida's game Saturday night against Philadelphia in the sixth inning because of a cramp in his right hamstring. He gave up three runs and four hits while striking out eight in 5 2-3 innings as the Marlins lost 3-2.
Sanchez has been inconsistent since rejoining the rotation in July following surgery last year. The 24-year-old right-hander is 0-1 with a 2.84 ERA in his last two starts - getting a total of three runs of support - but is 0-3 with an 8.00 ERA in four road starts this season.
Sanchez is 3-0 with a 3.16 ERA in seven starts versus the Nationals.
Washington will counter with rookie right-hander Collin Balester (3-6, 4.83 ERA), who is 1-0 with a 1.54 ERA and a .128 opponents batting average in two starts against the Marlins.
Balester labored through five innings against San Diego on Friday night, giving up five runs and nine hits as Washington lost 11-6 in 14 innings.
Balester may not have the Nationals' usual left side of the infield behind him, with third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and shortstop Cristian Guzman missing Wednesday's game with the flu. Their status for this game is uncertain.