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Beckett blazes Marlins' trail back to Wrigley

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MIAMI -- Josh Beckett doesn't care about the Cubs and their Billy Goat Curse. Josh Beckett doesn't care about the Cubs' theories on the power of red ivy. Josh Beckett doesn't care that the last time the Cubs went to the World Series, a postage stamp cost three cents.

Josh Beckett and all his friends in teal have noticed, you see, that nobody north of, say, Jacksonville seems to realize that the Cubs aren't the only team playing in the National League Championship Series. But that's not their problem.

Hard as the rest of America tries to will the Cubs into the World Series, Major League Baseball keeps allowing the Florida Marlins to show up, too. And if that means the Cubs lose their next two games, and their curse doesn't get lifted, and the largest block party in the history of Illinois gets indefinitely postponed, the Marlins won't be sending any sympathy cards.

"Hey, they've waited 95 years," said Marlins leadoff maestro Juan Pierre. "So they can wait one more."

Well, the Cubbies definitely have to wait one more game, anyway. Josh Beckett took care of that Sunday in the Florida twilight.

He may be just 23 years old. He may own a mere 17 career wins. He may have been hiding in the huge October shadows cast by Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. But on a scorching Sunday afternoon, when he was all that stood between his team and winter, Josh Beckett was Curt Schilling, Jack Morris and Orel Hershiser rolled into one.

It had been 10 years since any pitcher threw a complete-game postseason shutout in a game in which his team could have been eliminated. But on Sunday, Beckett spun an overwhelming 11-strikeout two-hitter at the poised-to-party Cubs.

His teammates were helpful enough to hit three home runs along the way. And one 4-0 Marlins win later, the NLCS was no longer a foregone conclusion, now that the Cubs suddenly lead it by only 3 games to 2.

"That guy's legit," said Cubs hitting coach Gary Matthews, after Beckett's masterpiece had sent this series U-turning back to Chicago for a Game 6 on Tuesday. "He had no-hit stuff out there today. I don't think too many teams would have wanted to face him with the stuff he had out there."

Spectacular as his stuff may be, though, before this game, Beckett had never thrown a shutout, in 96 professional starts -- major league, minor league, regular season or postseason. For that matter, he'd never even thrown a professional complete game.

So now think what it means that he rose up to throw his first shutout in a game that was only the biggest of his entire life.

Before Beckett, the last pitcher to put up start-to-finish zeroes in a win-or-go-fishing October baseball game was Schilling, in Game 5 of the 1993 World Series. Before that, the last was Morris, in a slightly famous Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. The last to do it in a League Championship Series was Hershiser, in Game 7, 1988.

But a Game 7 -- with a series tied at 3-3 -- is a whole different kind of event, and a whole different kind of pressure, than a Game 5, when your team is trailing, 3 games to 1. And the list of men who have thrown shutouts that kept seasons alive before a Game 7 (or a Game 5 in a five-game series) is incredibly short.

There was Schilling in 1993. There was Danny Jackson, spinning an eight-hitter against Toronto in Game 5 of the 1985 ALCS, launching his team on a comeback from a 3-games-to-1 hole to win that series. And there was Detroit's Joe Coleman in 1972, punching out 14 Oakland A's in the ALCS after his team had lost the first two games of a best-of-five series.

But over the last 40 years, that's the whole list: Schilling. Jackson. Coleman. And now, Josh Beckett.

"I think that tells you this guy has got what it takes," said Mike Lowell, whose two-run fifth-inning homer off Cubs starter Victor Zambrano ended the 0-0 pitching-duel portion of the afternoon. "It's no secret why a guy like that gets the hype that comes with being the No. 2 pick in the whole country (in the 1999 draft). The reason you draft a guy like that is that you think he'll pitch this way in big games. And today, he did."

True. But now let's add in the rest of the plot: Beckett pitched this game on a day when pretty much the whole darned U.S. of A. was ready to wave goodbye to the Marlins and get the theoretically preordained beer-soaked October Cub-fest started.

Jeff Conine said he saw a guy parading around the parking lot with a goat. A Fox in-game poll revealed that only five percent of America wanted to see a Marlins-Red Sox World Series. And the percentage of people who wanted to see a Marlins-Yankees World Series (three percent) looked eerily reminiscent of the percentage of Democrats planning to vote for Dennis Kucinich for president.

"We know nobody wants us to win," Pierre said. "These three games down here, they felt like road games. During batting practice, I had more people yelling at me than they do in Chicago. They were telling me, 'Hey Pierre, you (stink),' in our own park. We know what's going on. We're the bad guys in the black hats, I guess. But we have no problem with that."

Of course, they have less problems with it when Beckett is out there doing his thing. He threw his fastball Sunday at 95-100 mph. He threw his changeup at 85-88 mph. And he threw a drop-off-the-cliff curveball at 75-78 mph. So in a game where his control was so sharp that he ran only four three-ball counts all day, it was all over.

"I just know as a hitter," Lowell said, "that once a guy gets past 93, there's a different kind of pop. There's not the same amount of reaction time. Now you mix in that good second pitch, and it gets realllllll tough to hit."

It was so tough to hit, in fact, that the Cubs almost forgot to get any hits. There wasn't even a ball hit hard until the fifth inning, when Aramis Ramirez pounded a homer-length laser beam to left, that curled foul by no more than two yards.

"I was thinking -- well, I was actually saying, probably out loud: 'Go foul, go foul, go foul,' " Beckett admitted later.

And after it did, he promptly blew Ramirez away with a 98-mph fastball. So it figured that when he finally did allow his first hit, with two outs in the fifth, it was just a little punch-shot single to right-center by Alex Gonzalez. The only other hit was a routine rope to center by Moises Alou in the seventh. No Cub ever roamed beyond first base.

So the biggest excitement of the day came in the middle of a strikeout, when Sammy Sosa staggered out of the way of a high, hard, first-pitch scorcher in the fourth inning -- and jumped up with a menacing, I-know-Don-Zimmer-personally kind of look.

"When I don't like something," Sosa said, "I'm gonna let him know."

Beckett actually took a couple of strides toward home plate at that point. But before the National Guard had to be called in, Pudge Rodriguez hopped in front of Sosa, put his arm around him and did his best Henry Kissinger peacemaker impression.

"He was just talking nice," Sosa said. "He told me it wasn't intentional. And I told him I've been hit in the head a couple of times and I don't like that anymore, and that stuff's gotta stop."

So Beckett stopped it, all right. He blew a 100-mph inferno-ball past Sosa for strike two, then locked him with a changeup for strike three. Then he announced later that he thought the whole thing was "really stupid."

"I don't know what he was trying to do -- trying to pull a Boston Red Sox-Yankees thing," Beckett said. "I don't know. I was so surprised, I had to shoot something else back at him. It was kind of baffling to me, really."

But after that, Beckett left the rest of the baffling to the Cubs, who were baffled by his repertoire for all nine innings. And they won't be the last team to have that thrill.

If it weren't for blisters and a mild case of elbow tendinitis, Beckett might already be hanging out on the same stage as Wood and Prior. After Sunday, it's clear it's only a matter of time.

He had a 2.08 ERA in September that included a crucial, overpowering win over the Phillies in the last week of the season. Then he twirled a seven-inning nine-strikeout two-hitter in a fabulous Game 1 duel with Jason Schmidt in the Division Series.

And finally, after a brief intermission for a rocky Game 1 start at Wrigley Field in the NLCS, he was back to his dominating self Sunday, shutting out a team whose 33 runs in the first four games were the third-most ever by an NL team in any four-game stretch.

"People talk about Wood and Prior, but he's on a par with those guys, to me," said his manager, Jack McKeon. "He's really focusing now on what he wants to be -- an All-Star pitcher, a 20-game winner."

And Sunday was his way of announcing that to the entire baseball-watching portion of the solar system. Pretty good forum, we'd say: He was the first pitcher to shut out the Cubs in a postseason game since ... Babe Ruth (Game 1, 1918 World Series, six-hitter).

"I know Babe Ruth hit better than Beckett," laughed first baseman Derrek Lee. "But I don't know if he had better stuff."

Well, since radar-gun readings for Ruth's game were unavailable, we'll have to use our imaginations. But that's only fitting, because that's what the Marlins were doing after this game was over -- using their imaginations to contemplate what might go down if they head into Wrigley this week and beat Prior and Wood in Games 6 and 7.

It won't be pretty. It won't be popular. It won't be what your major television networks had in mind. But the Florida Marlins don't care about that, either. Asked what he hoped might unfold in these next two games, Marlins utility man Andy Fox had it all figured out.

"Basically," Fox said, "I hope we're the most hated team in the country."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.