MIAMI (AP) — They’re first in thriftiness and last at the turnstiles — again. They’ve never won a division title, and their roster turns over with the frequency of a college team.

Yet as the playoff race heats up, look who’s in the mix: those perennially overlooked, underrated Florida Marlins.

The Marlins began the week two games behind NL wild-card leader Colorado, and they’re 4½ games behind NL East leader Philadelphia.

“You get to this point of the season and they always seem to be hanging around,” says Rockies manager Jim Tracy, whose team lost two of three at Florida last weekend.

Fans haven’t exactly been overtaken by playoff fever – with an average home attendance of 18,215, the Marlins are on pace to finish last in the NL in attendance for the fifth year in a row. During last week’s homestand, every crowd was smaller than 22,000.

But the Marlins’ 63-55 record is worthy of notice, given that their payroll of $37 million is the smallest in the majors. Projected over a full season, Florida’s paying $425,000 per victory, compared to $1.8 million for their NL East rivals, the New York Mets.

That makes the underdog Marlins easy to root for, and they do have their fans, even in New York. Regis Philbin is one.

“I like to pick a team that no one else is looking at and predict they’re going to be a winner,” says Philbin, who has sung the Marlins’ praises on his TV show. “Last season during spring training I spent some time in Florida and I thought, ‘Gee, the Marlins have a great team. Nobody is paying any attention. They’ve got the lowest salaries in the league and a lot of no-names that haven’t developed yet.’ So I started talking about the Marlins.”

Philbin’s not alone. They’re creating a buzz — not in the stands, but in clubhouses around the league. They have an All-Star shortstop in NL batting leader Hanley Ramirez, a blossoming rookie in left fielder Chris Coghlan and an imposing ace in Josh Johnson, who is 12-2.

Perhaps the most underrated Marlin is manager Fredi Gonzalez, who keeps a low profile, which makes him a good fit for a team that does the same.

“You’ve got to give Fredi and the Marlins a lot of credit,” says Gonzalez’s mentor, Braves manager Bobby Cox. “It’s pretty remarkable with no payroll. Fredi does a great job. He gets the most out of them with what he’s got.”

If the Marlins keep to their six-year cycle, they’ll win the World Series this year. They did so as the NL’s wild-card team in 1997, and again in 2003. Those have been the only playoff teams in the franchise’s 16-year history, but in recent seasons they’ve usually stayed in contention into September.

This season’s Marlins are a streaky bunch. They started 11-1, but by Memorial Day they were five games below .500. On their most recent trip, they were swept by woeful Washington, then bounced back by sweeping the first-place Phillies.

Gonzalez says his young team remains in the race because of the way it copes with its inconsistency.

“It’s a matter of the culture in the clubhouse,” he says. “We have a good group of guys. There are no curds in the buttermilk.

“When we have tough losses or losing streaks, they don’t get down on themselves. It’s cultivated by our coaching staff. You could come into my office, and you wouldn’t know whether we’ve lost four in a row or won five in a row. I think the team feeds on that. We do our business, and we don’t ride the roller-coaster.”

A rotation expected to carry the team has been a disappointment aside from Johnson, who is 19-3 since returning in July 2008 from an elbow injury that sidelined him for more than a year. He allowed only one hit in his most recent start to win his fifth consecutive decision.

“He’s one of the better pitchers in our league, if not the best,” Phils manager Charlie Manuel said. “He’s a horse.”

While the other starting pitchers have struggled, the bullpen has been better than expected, and the acquisition of veteran first baseman Nick Johnson on July 31 ignited the offense. The Marlins are batting .327 in August, with at least 10 hits in each of the past 13 games, a club record.

Gonzalez said Johnson’s patience at the plate has rubbed off on a notoriously undisciplined lineup.

“Believe it or not, we preach taking pitches, working the count, going the other way,” Gonzalez said. “We hadn’t seen it. We have a bunch of guys free-swinging and hacking. But now all of sudden they see a guy in the lineup doing those things, and they go, ‘Hey, this may work.'”

Johnson is likely a two-month rental. The Nationals were willing to trade him because his contract expires after this season, and as a free agent he’s expected to be beyond the Marlins’ budget.

Instead, the rapid roster turnover will likely continue. The Marlins will dip into their bountiful farm system to restock, and they’ll have a young team with a low overhead again next year. And come August 2010, they may again be a surprise playoff contender.

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