- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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CHICAGO -- It's not impossible. It's not unprecedented. But what the Florida Marlins are trying to do this week will be tougher than trying to start a Pedro Martinez Fan Club at a Zimmer Family Reunion.
It's rough enough that the Marlins, by beating the Cubs on Sunday, are still only one-third of the way toward becoming the ninth team in baseball history to win a best-of-seven postseason series after trailing, 3 games to 1.
It's tricky enough that their starting pitcher Tuesday, Carl Pavano, will be making his first start of the postseason.
But the Fish also get to hit the trifecta of extenuating circumstances: 1) They have to win Games 6 and 7 on the road. 2) They have to do it at turbo-charged Wrigley Field, where the temperatures will feel as if they just walked into a freezer. And 3) they have to beat Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, back-to-back.
As fun little challenges go, this one is right up there with trying to find a Marlins fan on Waveland Avenue.
"But you know what?" said center fielder Juan Pierre. "When you look at our whole year, it would be kind of fitting to do it this way -- go in there against their top two guys and do the impossible. I'm sure nobody in the world thinks we can go in and beat those two guys."
So just how possible is this? Let's take a look:
There have been 60 previous best-of-seven postseason baseball series in which a team trailed, 3 games to 1, after four games. Only eight teams staggered back out of that canyon and won the series. It has been done three times in 21 instances in the League Championship Series -- by the 1985 Royals (over Toronto), the 1986 Red Sox (over California) and the 1996 Braves (over St. Louis). It has been pulled off in five of 39 World Series -- by the '85 Royals (over St. Louis), the '79 Pirates (over Baltimore), the '68 Tigers (over St. Louis), the '58 Yankees (over Milwaukee) and the '25 Pirates (over Washington).
But of those eight teams, just half of them had to hit the road for Games 6 and 7 -- the '85 Royals in Toronto, the '79 Pirates in Baltimore, the '68 Tigers in St. Louis and the '58 Yankees in Milwaukee. And the Marlins were not a good road team. They went 38-43 away from Miami during the regular season, the lowest road winning percentage among the eight playoff teams. Their staff ERA was almost two runs higher on the road (4.98) than at home (3.17). And they haven't played a game in which the game-time temperature was below 50 degrees since April 18.
When a team in the Cubs' shoes loses a Game 5, it's supposed to raise the pressure gauge on their barometers. But recent history is actually filled with instances of teams that led 3-1, and then were to forced a Game 6 -- or even 7 -- before winning . Nine teams have done that just in the last 10 postseasons. And since the '96 Braves became the last team to win a series after trailing 3-1, four teams up 3-1 have lost Game 5 but then won Game 6 -- the 2000 Yankees (vs. Seattle), the 1999 Braves (vs. New York), the '98 Padres (vs. Atlanta) and the 1997 Indians (vs. Baltimore).
As if all that weren't enough to deal with, the Marlins need to upset Prior and Wood, two guys who act as if they're allergic to losing. In the postseason, the Cubs are 5-0 in games those two have started. In their last 14 starts, the Cubs have gone 13-1 (a .929 winning percentage) and outscored the opposition, 75-31. And as the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel's Mike Berardino points out, only once all year did Wood and Prior lose games in the same series -- against the Cardinals, on July 4 and 6.
Some fun, eh?
"I don't think anybody thinks we can win," Pierre said. "But I think we can do the impossible. That's what we're out to do -- shock the world."
Well, at least the Marlins do have a couple of historical trends that tilt in their direction. One is: they're playing the Cubs. And you don't need to get out the encyclopedia to know their postseason history. The other, surprisingly, is Florida's decision to give Pavano his first start of the playoffs.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he's only the third pitcher in the last 15 years to make his first start 10 games or more into the postseason. But the other two -- Jimmy Key (1992 Blue Jays, Game 4 of the World Series) and Brian Anderson (2001 Diamondbacks, Game 3 of the World Series) -- both pitched great. Key beat the Braves. Anderson left a 1-1 game in the sixth in Yankee Stadium. Their combined ERA was 2.08.
Then again, neither of them pitched potential elimination games. And neither of their teams trailed, 3 games to 1. So we went searching for a more precise parallel.
We took a look at the previous series in which teams that had been trailing, 3-1, won Game 5 at home and then won Games 6 and 7 on the road. Let's just say there isn't much precedent for beating two pitchers as dominating as Wood and Prior:
The 1985 Royals had to start 23-year-old Mark Gubicza vs. 35-year-old Doyle Alexander in Game 6, then come back with 21-year-old Bret Saberhagen vs. Blue Jays ace Dave Stieb in Game 7. But Saberhagen was the Cy Young award winner that year. So even against Stieb, the Royals had the edge in that matchup. And Alexander, while a 17-game winner that year, was no dominator, while Gubicza was viewed as almost a Josh Beckett-type figure, one of the most hyped young pitchers in the game.
Those 1979 Pirates, meanwhile, did beat that year's Cy Young winner, Mike Flanagan, in Game 5. Then, in Game 6, they had to beat a Hall of Famer -- Jim Palmer. But they did it behind their best pitcher, John Candelaria, and faced Palmer at the end of an injury-plagued season in which he won only 10 games. Finally, in Game 7, Pittsburgh got a huge win from Jim Bibby (12-4 that year), over 25-year-old Scott McGregor, the year before McGregor turned into a 20-game winner.
Nobody had it tougher than the 1968 Tigers. Their 30-game winner, Denny McLain, held form by beating Ray Washburn in Game 6. But in Game 7, they had to face Bob Gibson, in his final start of possibly the greatest season of modern times (22-9, 1.12 ERA). They did it, though, with Mickey Lolich coming back on two days' rest to beat Gibson, 4-1.
Finally, those 1925 Pirates had a mess on their hands in Game 7, too. They had to beat a guy with 397 career wins, Walter Johnson. But Johnson, was 37 and in his final winning season. Game 7 was the worst postseason game of his life. He allowed 15 hits (still a Series record) and nine runs in a 9-7 disaster.
So no team in the Marlins' spot has ever had to beat two pitchers hotter than Prior and Wood. But these Marlins don't seem to know the meaning of that word, "impossible."
In their big 17-7 streak in September, they won games started by Javier Vazquez, Mike Hampton, Greg Maddux, Kevin Millwood, Randy Wolf and Tom Glavine. They won three games in a row in the Division Series against a Giants team that won 100 games. And the Marlins actually had a lead on Wood when he left the game last Friday, only to lose in extra innings.
So when they won Sunday to force this trip to Chicago, they didn't view that as just some kind of moral victory. When somebody asked Jeff Conine afterward if their goal had been to keep the Cubs from ending the series on their field, Conine laughed.
"No, he said. "We don't want them to end it at all."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
22mAnthony Witrado, Special to ESPN.com
23hAnthony Witrado, Special to ESPN.com