The Miami Marlins celebrate in the locker room after clinching a playoff berth with a win over the Pittsburgh Pirates in a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
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Kim Ng was well aware of the stakes when she became the Miami Marlins’ general manager in November 2020, stakes that extended well beyond whether she could resuscitate a franchise that’s spent most of its existence fighting for relevance within its own city.

The first female GM of a major North American sports franchise understood she was a pioneer. A symbol, too. She embraced the daunting task of taking a franchise with limited support and turning it into a contender while being careful to avoid setting a timetable for success.

Timetables invite judgment. Ng simply doesn’t see the world that way.

“You’re never sure when it’s all going to come together,” Ng said.

So rather than create some arbitrary deadline, Ng focused on the process of drafting and developing talent and sifting through rosters elsewhere in search of pieces she felt might fit.

The process gained traction last winter with the hiring of relentlessly upbeat first-year Skip Schumaker, who won the job during the first hour of his interview with owner Bruce Sherman. It picked up speed with the arrival of All-Star second baseman Luis Arraez and the addition at the trade deadline of veterans like first baseman Josh Bell.

And suddenly there Ng was on Saturday night, her hair drenched in a mix of Budweiser and bubbly, wearing a black T-shirt that read “Take October” in the Miami Marlins’ signature teal. The clubhouse mood was giddy after the Marlins clinched the franchise’s fourth playoff berth in its 31-year history with a 7-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

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Asked how a team that will finish the season with a negative run differential around 50 and injury issues made it to the postseason, Ng smiled as she tried and occasionally failed to dodge a steady stream of beer showers.

“This team has just exemplified heart and they know it,” she said. “And I think that is the driver of this group.”

Miami likely will have the worst run differential of a postseason team in major league history. The Marlins lost ace Sandy Alcantara to an elbow injury in early September while lineup fixtures like Arraez and Jorge Soler battled health issues down the stretch.

Still. Miami entered Sunday a remarkable 33-13 in one-run games, the best winning percentage (.718) in the National League since 1980, a full 13 years before Charlie Hough threw the franchise’s first pitch.

“They’ve proved to themselves they can do it,” Schumaker said.

Over and over and over again.

Miami’s clinching victory in some ways symbolized its season. Star centerfielder and video game cover model Jazz Chisholm Jr. hit an early homer. A walk, a bunt single, a sacrifice and a forceout grounder gave them the lead for good. Eight relievers combined to get 27 outs, the last four by newish closer Tanner Scott.

It is not the way Schumaker drew it up. Yet the utility player who got every bit of ounce he could out of his talent during an 11-year big-league career has become the manager perhaps uniquely qualified to handle a roster that is better than the sum of its parts.

“He said (during his interview) ‘I have certain unconditional aspects of how I manage’ and boy, he managed that way,” Sherman said. “The motivation he got from these guys, unbelievable.”

Motivation that wavered but never fully waned, even as Miami trudged through an uneven first five months of the season in which it did little more than find a way to hang around.

“There’s been like four times this year where I just to myself I’m just like ‘Man, I don’t know if we can do it,’” catcher Jacob Stallings said. “Just treading water and every time we (seem close to out of it), I mean we just do something crazy.”

Like sweeping rival and NL East winner Atlanta in mid-September immediately after a draining series loss in Milwaukee threatened to blunt their momentum.

Like rallying for two runs in the ninth inning at Citi Field against the New York Mets on Thursday, a game suspended by rain at nearly 1 a.m.

Like coming back from a 3-0 deficit in the eighth inning on Friday night, the sixth time this season they’ve roared back from three runs or more after the seventh, the most by any team in the majors in the modern era.

Miami’s 17-9 sprint through September culminated in a postgame party near the mound at PNC Park on Saturday night while a small cadre of fans behind the dugout shouted “Lets Go Marlins!”

Heady territory for a team with an opening day payroll of a relatively modest $91 million, a team that had dropped at least 93 games in each of the last four non-pandemic-shortened seasons.

“It’s not about payroll, it’s about what you got in here,” Sherman said, pointing to his heart. “And these guys had it in here.”

Maybe because the people like the woman Chisholm calls “Momma Kim,” showed them the way.

“Our staff, our front office, they’re a family and they showed us how to be a family,” Chisholm said. “And it starts at the top with Sherman, to Kim to Skip. It all starts from there. We just watch them and they help us. It’s fun to see how much work they put in.”

A job that Ng insists is still far from finished.

“I need to go back to my (introductory) press conference where I said ‘Failure is not an option,’” she said. “And that has really come full circle … So we’re here but we still have more work to do.”

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