Big trouble for Marlins
The defending champs split a doubleheader against the Cubs and in so doing damaged their hopes in the wild-card race.
Big Blow: With Cy Young candidate Carl Pavano pitching in the first game, the Marlins lost, 5-1, a defeat which all but crushes their chance of winning the wild card and defending their 2003 championship. David Weathers, dumped by the Mets and the Astros earlier this season, stepped up and pitched wonderfully in an emergency start in the second game, holding the Cubs to a run over five innings in Florida's 5-2 victory. But the Marlins don't have enough time left to be losing games: They are 4½ games behind San Francisco in the wild-card race, and four games behind the Cubs, with only 13 games remaining in the regular season. The Marlins misplayed a pop-up in the first inning of Game 1 to fall behind, 1-0, and after Florida tied the score at 1-1, Pavano allowed three runs in the top of the second. It may be that Pavano, who allowed 12 hits over six innings, simply is worn out at the end of the best season of his career -- and on this day, he was no match for the Cubs' Mark Prior.
Big Resurgence: Prior seemed to have some of the best stuff of his season, blowing away even slap hitters like Juan Pierre with a hard fastball and sharp breaking ball. The Marlins managed only five hits against Prior in 7 2/3 innings. Prior walked off the field and happily high-fived teammates; he whiffed nine, walked one. If he does, indeed, have his best stuff the rest of the way -- and maybe into October -- no one will care what he didn't have the first five months of the year.
Big Award: Pavano's defeat contrasted sharply with Roger Clemens's great win on Sunday night, and it stands to reason that Clemens is now the favorite to win the NL Cy Young Award -- and it would be his seventh award, incredibly.
Big Problem: After Hurricane Frances blew through South Florida, the Marlins had 30 games in the 27 days left, and the multiple doubleheaders have hurt them. Their starting rotation of five pitchers had been solid, generally, but Florida had trouble finding an extra starter to help out. Logan Kensing was promoted from Class A to pitch against the Cubs on Sept. 10, and was rocked for five runs and eight hits in two innings. Five days later, they tried veteran Nate Bump, and the Expos pounded him for eight hits and eight runs in 3.1 innings. Then A.J. Burnett went down with soreness in his elbow and missed a start, and Kensing started in his place and lasted four innings in an 8-1 loss to Atlanta last Friday. Weathers won Game 2, as Damion Easley had a homer and four RBI and relievers Guillermo Mota and Armando Benitez chipped in with three scoreless innings of relief. But in the end, the shortage of pitching depth might be what wrecks the Marlins' season.
Big Push: After slopping along for much of the season, the Cubs seem to be playing better, winning eight of their last 11. Unfortunately for Chicago, however, the remarkable Giants also got hot, winning six in a row and seven of their last eight.
Big Absence: Shortstop Nomar Garciaparra has not played since Sept. 11, because of a strained right groin, but he might play in the upcoming series against the Pirates. Neifi Perez has replaced him and hit .273 with two homers and four RBI in the last seven days, as he headed into Monday's doubleheader.
Big Advantage: The Cubs will continue on their long road trip, playing three games in Pittsburgh and then three games against the Walking Dead currently inhabiting New York's Shea Stadium. They finish at home with four games against Cincinnati and three versus Atlanta. It's a relatively easy schedule, because the Giants and Astros have to play each other this week before facing the leaders in their respective divisions. Florida needs lots of help from all over to catch up, at this point.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," is a New York Times best seller and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.