Season of promise ends in tragedy for Marlins

Fernandez's fatal crash takes heart out of a team showing progress

Season of promise ends in tragedy for Marlins

MIAMI -- A season of promise and progress ended on an unimaginably tragic note. For all the gains the Marlins made on the field, it's the death of Jose Fernandez in a boating accident on Sept. 25 that casts a dark cloud over 2016.

Fernandez, a two-time All-Star, embraced the role of ace. He stepped up, as did many other Marlins and the club remained in Wild Card contention until the final week of the season.

Stanton, Yelich on Fernandez

From the start of Spring Training, first-year manager Don Mattingly did so much to change the culture in the organization. He made no excuses, kept his team looking forward, and the players responded. But nothing could prepare the organization for what happened in the early morning hours of Sept. 25 off Miami Beach.

Although the Marlins were mathematically in the Wild Card chase until late September, in reality, they began slumping in early August.

Marlins relying on group effort to take step forward in '17

"I think in August, we really seemed to run out of gas," Mattingly said. "I think in the second half, after the break we get to nine over. Then, from there, we just didn't play that great of baseball. There was a time there where we weren't really scoring."

Record: 79-82, third place, National League East.

Defining moment: The day after Fernandez died, the Marlins -- all wearing No. 16 Fernandez jerseys -- bonded as one and defeated the Mets, 7-3, in the most emotional game ever played at Marlins Park.

The symbolic moment of the night came in the first inning, when light-hitting Dee Gordon, stepped up to the plate from the right side "because Jose liked to hit as much as he liked to pitch." He took one pitch, a ball from Bartolo Colon, before flipping to his natural left side.

Two pitches later, it became a storybook moment. Gordon blasted a home run -- his first of the year -- into the second deck in right field and sobbed as he circled the bases.

Gordon's emotional leadoff homer

Postgame, the team circled the mound on which Fernandez went 12-2 this year, and left their caps in tribute.

What went right: The Marlins felt their everyday core players could compete with anybody. They basically showed they could, but injuries hurt the continuity along the way.

Christian Yelich had a breakout season, and now that his game is showing more power, he is on the cusp of being an All-Star.

Yelich's solo home run

J.T. Realmuto improved on his framing skills, and he's becoming one of the top catchers in the National League.

Marcell Ozuna had a standout first half, becoming an All-Star starter in center field. The 25-year-old displayed power, topping 20 home runs for the second time in his career.

And if anyone questioned whether third baseman Martin Prado was at the end of his career, the veteran proved he still has plenty left. Prado's leadership and production helped keep the club together.

Prado's diving stop

What went wrong: Gordon's 80-game suspension at the end of April could have derailed the season early, but the Marlins showed resolve, and Derek Dietrich stepped up in his absence. But losing Gordon's game-changing speed and Gold Glove-caliber defense tested the depth of the organization. Plus, the lost time hurt Gordon when he did return in late July. His season was never able to get on track.

Giancarlo Stanton suffered a Grade 3 left groin strain on Aug. 13. But before his injury, the slugger got off to a slow start. Even though he showed home run power and drove in his share of runs, the three-time All-Star had a down year by his standards.

Mattingly on Stanton's injury

Another key injury came on July 2 when Justin Bour suffered a right ankle sprain that kept him out until September.

Biggest surprise: The re-emergence of Ichiro Suzuki and his quest for 3,000 hits was one of the top storylines, not just for the Marlins and in his native Japan, but also throughout Major League Baseball.

Many questioned if at age 42, Ichiro would be able to reach the milestone, even though he entered the season 65 away. But Ichiro stepped up early, getting playing time when Yelich and Stanton were given days off and became a factor. On Aug. 7 at Colorado, Ichiro ripped a triple off the wall in right field for career hit No. 3,000. He's just the 30th player to top the milestone in MLB history.

Fans cheer Ichiro for 3,000

Hitter of the Year: Yelich blossomed from natural hitter with a penchant for getting on base into a power threat, collecting career highs in home runs and RBIs. In his first few big league seasons, the 25-year-old batted mostly first or second, but the decision was made to slide him into the third spot. Yelich stepped up in the middle of the order and even batted cleanup after Stanton's injury.

Pitcher of the Year: Fernandez was dominant. His 12.49 strikeouts per nine innings were the best in baseball. In 29 starts, the right-hander was 16-8 with a 2.86 ERA, and his 253 strikeouts are a franchise season record. The 16 wins were the most by a Marlins starter since Dontrelle Willis won 22 in 2005.

Rookie of the Year: Close to the 2015 non-waiver Trade Deadline, the Marlins dealt closer Steve Cishek to the Cardinals for Kyle Barraclough. At the time, Barraclough wasn't considered a prospect. The right-hander showed promise late in 2015, and this year, he was a weapon in the back of the bullpen. With his wipeout slider and 96-mph fastball, the rookie has the makings of perhaps a future closer.

Joe Frisaro has covered the Marlins for MLB.com since 2002. He writes a blog, called The Fish Pond. Follow him on Twitter @JoeFrisaro and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.