CINCINNATI -- It's one of those Marlins baseball stories that continues to bring smiles to those who remember it. It was early in the 2003 season, the Marlins were at their lowest point record-wise with a 19-29 mark, the team was in Cincinnati, and starting pitcher Brad Penny was throwing-up sick in the team hotel, unable to take the mound that night at Great American Ball Park.
So Jack McKeon turned to Tommy Phelps, with most assuming the Marlins' miserable season would continue. Only that wasn't what happened. Phelps and the Marlins beat the Reds that night -- and from then on, they kept on winning, all the way to the World Series. It was a key turning point in that magical season for the Marlins, and Penny was a big reason why, not only that night, but on a lot of others to follow.
"This is a good place to start a streak," Marlins manager Mike Redmond said Friday, reminiscing on that 2003 moment involving Penny. "This is a good place to start a streak. We need to get a streak going. This would be a perfect time. We had one, now we need another one."
And the Marlins are hoping Penny can help them do it again.
Penny, now 36, will be making his major league comeback tonight for the Marlins at Great American. Penny hasn't pitched in the majors in two years. He hasn't started a big-league game in three. And he hasn't pitched for the Marlins in 10.
"I'm excited," Penny said. "It’s been 10 years since I pitched for the Marlins and I’m looking forward to it. It’ll be a little weird. But I’ve been with so many teams, it’s also kind of normal.”
Penny, whose last major league appearance came in 2012 with the Giants, began his career with the Marlins in 2000 and returns as a figure from its glorious past. His 48 wins as a Marlin rank fifth on the team's all-time list -- one behind A.J. Burnett -- and he's the only Marlins pitcher ever to win two World Series games. He won Games 1 and 5 against the Yankees in the '03 Series.
Midway through the 2004 season, Penny was traded to the Dodgers for Paul Lo Duca and others. He was a two-time All-Star in Los Angeles and in 2007 finished third in voting for the Cy Young Award.
But it's been three years, when he was with Detroit, since Penny recorded a major league win. He tried playing baseball in Japan last year, made one start there, and returned home, his career seemingly over. But not as far as Penny was concerned.
"I just took last year off, gave my body a rest," he said. "Everything was kind of aching. I just decided to give everything a rest."
A re-energized Penny signed with the Marlins earlier in the summer and, lo and behold, looked like the Penny of old in his minor-league outings. He went 2-2 with a 2.28 ERA in his five outings for New Orleans. In those starts, he struck out 26 and walked nine in 27 innings. He didn't give up any home runs.
It hasn't been a good year for players trying to resurrect their careers with the Marlins (see Rafael Furcal, Randy Wolf and Kevin Gregg). But the Marlins are counting on Penny to reverse that trend.
"It's been a long road for him coming back," Redmond said. "I don't know what it'll do for the other guys, because most of these guys (all of them, actually) weren't around when Brad was pitching. I know for me, it's going to be fun. I caught a lot of his starts and seeing him out on that mound, and me managing him, it's kind of fitting. I'm excited for him. We need him to come in and have some big starts. Hopefully he'll come in and be a nice spark for us."