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MIAMI --- The Florida Marlins were in the late innings of a tight game when the opposing center fielder lost a routine fly in the sun and let it fall for a double. Then a wild pitch took a crazy bounce off the backstop, two runs scored, and the surprising Fish were on their way to another win.

Three weeks into the season, the baseball gods seem to be smiling on the Marlins.

"We'll take it, because we got a lot of frowns last year," manager Fredi Gonzalez says.

The Marlins finished last in the NL East in 2007 at 71-91, then traded away their biggest stars, Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. That deal with Detroit further reduced Florida's already small payroll, and expectations for this season were also modest.

But the ball has been bouncing Florida's way, most recently with Sunday's misplayed fly and extremely wild pitch by the hapless Washington Nationals. The Marlins began this week 5-0 in one-run games, and despite being outscored by 13 runs this season, they were 11-7 and leading a division that includes Philadelphia, the New York Mets and Atlanta.

"We're not surprised," says left-hander Scott Olsen, the ace of an otherwise underwhelming rotation. "We have confidence in each other and ourselves. People might be surprised, but we're not."

With a payroll of $22 million, maybe it's surprising whenever the Marlins win a game. The New York Yankees' payroll is 10 times higher, and thrifty Tampa Bay -- with the majors' second-smallest payroll -- has Florida doubled at $44 million.

Even if the Marlins turn out not to be the best team in the NL East, their roster may be baseball's best bargain. It's led by shortstop Hanley Ramirez, a blossoming superstar who began the week batting .366 with five homers, 14 RBIs and only one error.

Also off to strong starts are first baseman Mike Jacobs (.304, six homers), left fielder Josh Willingham (.299, four homers) and Cabrera's replacement at third base, Jorge Cantu (.308). The team's 26 homers began Monday as the second most in the majors, and an overworked but deep bullpen has an ERA of 3.21.

As a result, the Marlins have won four of their first six series. Florida started a seven-game road trip Monday night, with stops in Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Milwaukee.

"It's great when nobody picks you to win, because you're not expected to do anything," says newcomer Luis Gonzalez, whose veteran leadership has won praise for improving clubhouse chemistry. "Predictions about who is going to win the World Series -- if the players all believed that, we wouldn't have a season. We just run out there and play, and you never know what is going to happen."

April success is a refreshing change for the Marlins, who started 6-10 last year and 6-18 in 2006. For many players on the young team, this is the first time they've won early.

"It's a lot of fun," says Olsen, 3-0 with a 2.60 ERA. "Getting off to a good start is something the last two years we haven't done. These games are important right now. They go down in the standings, too. Taking series like we've been doing is great for us."

Still, success will be difficult to sustain. Even though Olsen has revived his career after a miserable 2007 season, the patchwork rotation is shaky. Florida's starters began the week with an ERA of 6.13, worst in the majors, and their average of five innings per outing also ranked last.

The starters' struggles make Florida's record that much more remarkable.

"We're 11-7 and we really haven't pitched real well," manager Gonzalez says. "We can still improve on our pitching."

Other problems that plagued the Marlins last year persist, too. They began the week next-to-last in the NL in defense, their hitters ranked last in strikeouts at 8.7 per game, and their center fielders were batting .233 with no home runs.

Working in Florida's favor has been a soft schedule. The Marlins have played only two teams with winning records while going 5-1 against the Nationals, who have the worst record in the majors.

Only three of Florida's first 50 games are against the NL East favorites, the Mets and Phillies. The Marlins visit both in late May, and if they're still atop the division then, they deserve a raise.

"We're winning, and it feels great," reliever Taylor Tankersley says. "But it's a long season."


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