NEW YORK - The Florida Marlins, assigned to the bottom of the National League East in most preseason polls, had just won yet another game in Washington earlier this month, keeping the surprising Fish in first place.

Afterward, Mike Jacobs was exercising his First Amendment right to free speech by warming to the twin topics of how few had expected the Marlins to be so successful this year and how fewer still believed they had the right stuff to keep it up all season.

Sure enough, as if on cue, the talking head on the clubhouse television set just behind the first baseman started chattering about how Florida was off to a fast start, sure, but would soon revert to its rightful spot in the divisional pecking order.

Fade to black? Anything's possible, of course. But the Marlins team that comes to Citizens Bank Park tonight with a half-game lead over the Phillies in its pocket and a bit of a chip on its shoulders doesn't think so.

"I feel like and everybody in here feels like - and knows - we can play with any team in the big leagues," centerfielder Cody Ross said before Wednesday's game against the Mets at Shea Stadium. "We've had a lot of people say this and that about us or whatever. But we know in our hearts that we're good and we play well together. We're young. We're hungry. And we're out to prove people wrong."

There were, to be fair, valid reasons to doubt the Marlins coming out of spring training.

They finished last in 2007 . . . and then traded their two most recognizable players, third baseman Miguel Cabrera and lefthander Dontrelle Willis.

They led the majors with 137 errors.

And their starting pitching, on paper, was unimpressive. None of the projected starters had a career winning record or had been over .500 the previous season. The lowest '07 earned run average among the group was Mark Hendrickson's 5.21. And Scott Olsen had the highest ERA (5.81) among all qualifying starters.

Second-year manager Fredi Gonzalez dealt with each one of those issues head-on when his team gathered in Jupiter, Fla.

"We addressed [the loss of Cabrera and Willis] really minimal," he said, sitting in the visiting team's dugout at Shea. "We said obviously those guys were big parts of this organization, the last two guys who were here when we won the World Series [2003]. But I always felt we had enough offense that we could compete and continue to score runs.

"Obviously, you're going to miss .330 and 30 and 110 in the middle of the lineup. It's hard to replace those numbers. But I felt comfortable that we were going to be able to score enough runs to win ballgames. So we kind of addressed that. That was the issue, let's go on, continue, keep working. And they've done so."

Second baseman Dan Uggla, who has the numbers (.307, 16 home runs, 38 RBI) of Chase Utley if not the national reputation, shrugged when the subject was raised.

"You can look at it any way you want to look at it," he said. "I don't think anybody was surprised by it. I mean, Miguel and Dontrelle are going to be making some pretty nice salaries this year. So you kind of expected them to be gone, given the Marlins' track record on how they do things.

"But at the same time, as much as I like those guys and as good of friends as they are, it's baseball and that's the way it goes. We knew we were going to get some great young prospects in return. You fill voids. You can't replace Miguel Cabrera with one guy. Or Dontrelle. You've got to come together as a team and make up for the effort."

The departure of established stars also made it easier for Gonzalez to exert more control of the clubhouse and he has earned high marks for doing just that. For example, he has banned loud clubhouse music, which has resulted in a more disciplined and structured atmosphere.

Next, Gonzalez emphasized the need for better defense.

"We worked really, really hard this spring training on our defense," Ross said. "Even now at home we're still going out there and taking early ground balls and early outfield drills, just to try to cut down on the errors. Just trying to pound it into us that we've got to catch the ball and not give the other team more outs."

As a reminder, several players wear black T-shirts under their jerseys that say "Marlins Defense" on the front and "It's A Commitment" on the back.

While there hasn't been a noticeable statistical improvement - 45 errors and a .977 fielding percentage - Gonzalez said he believes his team has been able to minimize costly errors.

Finally, the manager said pitching coach Mark Wiley deserves a lot of credit for stressing the importance of throwing strikes, noting that he even used the old method of framing the zone with strings in spring training to stress the need for better command.

Even without Cabrera, Florida figured to have a potent offense. The Fish are second in the majors with 76 home runs (trailing only the Phillies, who have 79) and have five players (shortstop Hanley Ramirez, third baseman Jorge Cantu, rightfielder Jeremy Hermida, Jacobs and Uggla) with at least 23 RBI.

Gonzalez conceded that Cantu has been a "tremendous surprise" taking over for Cabrera. But, outside of Ramirez, few of the Marlins' stars have a national profile.

"I just think, being from Florida, we don't get a lot of national attention," Ross said. "But we've got a lot of talent. A lot of talent.

"I don't think people really get a chance to see that because of where we're at. The market is so small down there. If our same team was in New York it would be amazing. It would be, 'Wow.' "

The bullpen has also been a strength. Marlins relievers had a 3.11 ERA and Florida was 25-0 when leading after eight innings before two blown saves cost them a win in extra innings Wednesday.

Gonzalez said recently that he believes his team has already earned the respect of the baseball community and it appears he's right.

Mets general manager Omar Minaya told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel this week that he sees no reason why the Marlins can't compete all season. "They're athletic and they're talented and they've got pitching," he observed.

Jacobs has noticed. "In other clubhouses, we absolutely have a lot of respect," he said. "In every clubhouse, especially in our division, when we go in there to play they go, '[Fudge], it's the Marlins coming in to play. It's not just a last-place team, or not just somebody we're going to be able to roll over.' They go, 'It's the Marlins, and we'd better be on top of our game.' I truly believe that."

It clearly still rankles, though, that not everybody has jumped on the bandwagon yet.

"It's real easy for somebody to sit behind a desk and look at every possible number and making up [stuff] these days and say why guys are good or not good," Jacobs said. "The bottom line is you've got to go out there every night and play ball. It's real easy to sit there and say, 'Oh, they're not good, they're not for real.' It's kind of an easy way out, I think.

"How about somebody step up one time and say, 'Man, these guys are really [freaking] good? And let's see if they can hold on and see what they do this year.' It's a lot harder to do that than say they're no good."

If Florida keeps on winning, Jacobs might have even television commentators agreeing with him pretty soon. *