Venue: Marlins Park
(AP) - The Miami Marlins generated baseball's biggest buzz as they prepared for their home opener a year ago, anticipating a playoff bid and nearly nightly sellout crowds in a futuristic new home that was supposed to transform a franchise long accustomed to attracting little attention.
As the Marlins begin year two in their ballpark, they're back to operating in obscurity. Given the dismal outlook this season, that may be just as well.
Thousands of empty seats are likely for the home opener against the Atlanta Braves on Monday night, with a succession of small crowds to follow. Many potential ticket buyers are disenchanted because owner Jeffrey Loria reverted to his frugal payrolls of the past, and the team is widely projected to finish last in NL East for the third year in a row.
Kevin Slowey (0-1, 1.69 ERA) is scheduled to start the first home game for Miami against Paul Maholm (1-0, 0.00). If fans are on the edge of their seats, it may be only because they're awaiting a chance to boo Loria, who ordered a roster dismantling when last season went sour.
"I appreciate and am sorry it has been such a tough offseason," team president David Samson said Sunday before the Marlins' game against the Mets in New York. "The people who are coming to the game (Monday) hopefully are there to cheer on the players who deserve to get cheered."
Loria decided the Marlins needed to reboot after losing 93 games last year, and slugger Giancarlo Stanton will be the lone holdover in the lineup from the home opener in 2012.
That night, Miami christened its long-sought ballpark in the major-league opener on national TV against the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals. Starters were introduced accompanied by women dressed as Latin showgirls, and Muhammad Ali delivered the first pitch.
"It was awesome," reliever Steve Cishek recalled. "Seeing Muhammad Ali out there, it was crazy."
Then Kyle Lohse held Miami hitless until the seventh inning, the Marlins lost, and little went right the rest of the year.
"Last season ... there's not much more negative we can get than that," Stanton said.
But negativity lingers, and many former Marlins supporters pledge to stay away. The team was disappointed to sell only 12,000 season tickets a year ago, and this year sales have declined to about 5,000.
Interest in the home opener was so tepid that a discount coupon company offered reduced-price tickets. The club's slow start this week on the road didn't help - Miami (1-5) totaled one run in the first three games and was the last major-league team to win a game.
Samson said well over 30,000 are expected for the opener. But a sellout is unlikely, and while Samson expects season attendance to surpass the modest goal of 1 million, he conceded it will likely be lower than in 2012.
"We didn't start from such a high number to start with last year," he said, "but I think it'll go down."
While the Marlins might finish last in the NL in attendance for the eighth time in nine years, Stanton said the team can't do anything about discontented fans.
"They're not angry with the players," he said. "We didn't lose them, we can't gain them back from one thing. ... We've just got to play good."
They'll try to start doing so against the Braves (5-1), who have scored 31 runs in their wins and went 7-2 at Marlins Park last year and 14-4 in the season series.
The Braves completed a three-game sweep of Chicago on Sunday with a 5-1 victory, winning despite striking out 16 times. Atlanta, missing injured starters Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons, got a two-run single from backup infielder Ramiro Pena.
"Our bench is so deep that you can run Pena in there and not lose a beat," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "And put Chris Johnson at first base and still put a pretty good team on the field. That's a sign of a good baseball team. Well-rounded."
Maholm was solid in his season debut Wednesday, pitching 5 2-3 scoreless innings in a 9-2 victory over Philadelphia. He went 2-0 with a 1.27 ERA in three starts versus Miami last year.
Slowey pitched well in his long-awaited return after a year off due to injuries, going 5 1-3 innings and allowing one run in a 3-0 loss to Washington on Wednesday. He's still seeking his first win since Sept. 18, 2010.
Stanton has a six-game hitting streak versus Atlanta, going 7 for 21 with two home runs, three doubles and three RBIs.
The Braves placed Freeman on the disabled list with a strained right oblique.
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