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With 26 RBIs, Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton is off to his best yet

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MIAMI — Chasing a fly in deep right-center field, Giancarlo Stanton and Miami Marlins teammate Christian Yelich appeared headed for a collision, and perhaps the disabled list.

At the last moment, the slender Yelich hit the brakes, allowing the 6-foot-6, 242-pound Stanton to make the catch.

"I kind of peeled off," Yelich said. "Self-preservation. You never want to run into that guy. It's not going to end well for me."

The word is out, to teammates and opponents alike: Stay out of Stanton's way. He's not to be stopped.

Precocious and prolific, with a predilection for the prodigious, Stanton has never had a start like this. A game-winning grand slam Friday night against Seattle increased his RBI total to 26, seven more than any other player in the major leagues. The home run was his sixth, which tied him for the most in the majors, and his six game-winning RBIs rank first.

He went into Saturday's game against Seattle batting .329 with a .657 slugging percentage.

"I'm not trying to do too much," Stanton said. "I'm just relaxed and understanding the situations, and putting the bat on the ball."

He's also healthy for a change after missing 39 games in 2012 and 46 in 2013 because of injuries.

"This guy has had an unbelievable month," manager Mike Redmond said. "It started for him in spring training. He came in ready to go, and you could see him focused with new energy and drive, and that has really carried over."

Despite limited playing time in his first four seasons, Stanton became one of the youngest players in major league history to hit 100 homers when he reached the milestone last year at 23. His tape-measure homers make even crusty veterans shake their heads in amazement.

Through Friday he's on pace to finish with 57 homers and 248 RBIs. And maybe his productivity will pick up — Stanton has been notoriously lousy in past Aprils and never had more than nine RBIs in the month before this season.

PHOTO: Miami Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton hits a grand slam to defeat the Seattle Mariners 8-4 during the ninth inning of an interleague baseball game on Friday, April 18, 2014, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Miami Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton hits a grand slam to defeat the Seattle Mariners 8-4 during the ninth inning of an interleague baseball game on Friday, April 18, 2014, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Better pitch selection is a factor in his success. Stanton has averaged more than one strikeout a game in his career, and he's prone to chase outside breaking balls while taking fastballs down the middle.

But he has been harder to fool this year, and quicker to pounce on fat pitches.

"I'm still chasing some, and not looking good doing it," he said. "When you do get balls over the plate, you've got to do something with them. If I strike out, it's going to happen. But I try to do damage when it's over the plate."

Opponents have noticed the difference. Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon didn't like his team's chances when Stanton stepped to the plate with the bases loaded, nobody out and the score tied in the ninth inning Friday.

"I knew this game was probably over with," McClendon said. "He's a force. His strike zone is getting better. He's probably a much more patient hitter now than when he first came into the league. Knowledge is power, and he's got knowledge. He knows the pitchers now, and he knows how they're going to try to work him. He's a pretty good player."

Because Stanton plays for frugal Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, he's the constant topic of trade speculation. He became eligible for arbitration for the first time last winter and cashed in with a $6.5 million, one-year deal. The way he's going this season, he may soon price himself out of town.

Plus, his patience with the Marlins' losing is wearing thin. They've finished last in the NL East each of the past three seasons.

"I'm not a loser," Stanton said at the start of spring training. Two months later, the Marlins are last again, which raises a question: Where would they be without him?

"Who knows? I don't like to think like that," Redmond said with a nervous chuckle. "I'm glad we've got him. There are just not a lot of these guys out there — players who can take one swing and change the course of a game. There's no limit to how much damage this guy can do."

Stanton has benefited from a better supporting cast than a year ago, when the Marlins ranked last in the majors in runs, batting and slugging. Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and Adeiny Hechavarria are promising youngsters, and veteran newcomer Casey McGehee began the weekend batting .302 with 14 RBIs.

Stanton said this year's team is closer to being respectable, despite a recent eight-game losing streak.

"It's pretty much one of two plays a game that makes us win or lose," he said. "We can't hang our head. Otherwise you're just going to keep spiraling down."

Stanton is doing what he can to put a positive spin on the situation, in the clubhouse and at the plate.

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PHOTO: Miami Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton hits a grand slam to defeat the Seattle Mariners 8-4 during the ninth inning of an interleague baseball game on Friday, April 18, 2014, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
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