<
>

Marlins' win poetic justice

CHICAGO -- It isn't about curses. It isn't about goats. It isn't about fans with long arms. It isn't about fate.

Sometimes, it's actually about baseball. What a concept.

People need explanations in life, especially for stuff that seems so unexplainable. And the sight of the Cubs blowing a 3-games-to-1 lead in an NLCS, with Mark Prior and Kerry Wood pitching Games 6 and 7, seems about as unexplainable as the rampaging fame of Whoopi Goldberg.

But what folks often forget at times like this is that there are two teams playing in these games. And due to circumstances beyond the control of Bud Selig, the FOX television network, Wood, Prior, Dusty Baker, Bill Murray, Bernie Mac, the Illinois Confederation of Goat Farmers and collectors of red ivy, one of those teams happened to be the Florida Marlins.

If you let them play, it's trouble for everybody. The Giants found that out. The Phillies found that out. All those teams chasing them in the wild-card free-for-all found that out.

And Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, the Marlins delivered that message one more time, with a 9-6 pounding of Wood and the Cubs in Game 7 of an NLCS it will take a long while to forget.

So the Florida Marlins are going to the World Series. They understand they've screwed up about a zillion romantic plot lines. They understand they're about the last team on earth that the poets, the historians and the ratings counters wanted to see show up at that World Series. But that's a problem only for the poets, the historians and the ratings counters.

Sometimes it's about baseball. And the best baseball team is the one still playing.

"I know a lot of people wanted to see the Red Sox and the Cubs," said Marlins reliever Chad Fox. "But you know what? It wasn't to be. You can say what you want about goats and curses. But the better team won. They had their two horses going, and they didn't get it done. So the better team won. I'm not knocking those guys when I say that. But we did what we had to do."

They've been doing what they had to do for five months now, by the way. Nobody was real interested. Nobody was too convinced. Nobody anointed them as the hot story in baseball. But what else is new?

The Marlins' national profile is closer to the Peoria Chiefs than it is to the Cubs, Red Sox or Yankees. But somehow, while we were all busy watching other games and making other World Series plans, the Marlins were winning more games than any of those teams since we finished firing up the Memorial Day barbecues.

They were 10 games under .500 back on May 23. Since then, they have the best record in baseball (79-46, counting the postseason). So when they found themselves trailing the Cubs, 3 games to 1, last weekend, the Marlins just filed it under "S" -- for Same Old Same Old.

"When we got down like that the other day, I said to these guys, 'Why should we worry about that?' " said coach Ozzie Guillen, between puffs on his NLCS victory cigar. "I said, 'It's been like that for us since June. We had to win every game since June to get here.' And they said, 'Damn. That's true.' "

"I think we might have set a record," laughed fellow coach Perry Hill. "What's the record for most playoff games in one year? That's all we've played for four months."

On the national airwaves, they aren't the big story in this series, even now. Even after winning it. Even after becoming the fourth team in history to wriggle out of a 3-games-to-1 snakepit in the League Championship Series. Even now that they have a chance to become the first team since the 1914 Miracle Braves to win a World Series in a season in which they were once 10 games below .500.

But that's because this series isn't going to be remembered as the series the Marlins won. It's going to be remembered as the series the Cubs couldn't lose -- but did. That's how this media game works. But these Marlins are such a sharp group, they get that, too.

"I know the way this will be portrayed is that we sneaked in the back door," said third baseman Mike Lowell. "But you know what? We can sneak in the back door all the way to the world championship. I don't care."

But roll back the tape to Sunday, the day everything changed, and you'll find that there was more going on these last three games than some poor schmo in a Cubs cap who decided he'd like to catch a foul ball.

Like Josh Beckett. What a story. As if it weren't enough that he reversed the course of NLCS events Sunday with one of the great October pitching shows of modern times, he was back for more Wednesday.

"I figured maybe he'd come in and throw an inning (in relief)," Lowell said. "I never thought he'd throw four."

But that's what happened. After the Marlins rallied to take a 6-5 lead in the top of the fifth inning, Beckett came stomping out of the bullpen to try to hold it. Four innings later, he still hadn't thrown a single pitch from the stretch. The only base runner he allowed was a pinch homer by Troy O'Leary after his team's lead had swelled to four.

"How about that kid, at 23 years old?" Fox gushed. "His start on Sunday put him on the map. Now he owns about three-quarters of the map.

"That kid," Fox went on, "he wanted the ball so bad tonight. We went to lunch today, and I said, 'Josh, just do the same things you've always done. Don't step it up. Don't turn it up. Just believe in yourself and don't change a thing.' "

For reasons that make zero sense, Beckett was not awarded the win in this game, even though Marlins starter Mark Redman didn't make it past the third inning. That scoring decision denied Beckett a chance to add his name to a staggering list of great starting pitchers who came out of their teams' bullpens to win a sudden-death playoff game in relief.

The two most recent names on that list are guys you might have heard of: Randy Johnson (2001 World Series, 1995 ALDS) and Pedro Martinez (1999 ALDS). And how ironic is that? In a series in which Wood and Prior kept hearing they were playing the roles of Johnson and Curt Schilling, it turned out to be Beckett who played the roles of Johnson and Pedro -- all by himself.

But we consider it our patriotic duty to point out that the Marlins are a team churning out a zillion other great stories, too. How about Miguel Cabrera? Try to top that one.

Less than four months ago, he was still playing for the Carolina Mudcats, in Double-A. On Wednesday, he became the second rookie in the history of baseball to hit three home runs in one postseason series. The other did it nearly 50 years before Cabrera's rookie season on the planet. That was Charlie Keller, of the 1939 Yankees.

But even that doesn't properly tell Miguel Cabrera's astounding story. It was the setting of this home run that said it all.

First inning. One out. Two on. Crowd roaring. Chicago shaking. Wood launching 97-mph lightning bolts. And then a 20-year-old rookie, hitting cleanup in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series, put a swing on a Kerry Wood fastball that seemed to suck all the oxygen out of the entire North Side of Chicago.

By the time Cabrera's staggering three-run home run had finished jetting into the back row of the left-center-field bleachers, there wasn't one of the 39,574 occupants of Wrigley Field who didn't have a feeling it might be another One Of Those Nights.

"This kid starts the season in Double-A and ends up hitting cleanup for a team that's going to the World Series?" mused his hitting coach, Bill Robinson. "That's unheard of."

"I'm telling you, man," Guillen said. "He's going to be better than Manny Ramirez. He's a better defensive player. He runs better. He's a better baseball player. And I say that with unbelievable respect for Manny. But this kid, there's nothing he can't do. The other day, we put him in right field for the first time in his life. So I told him, 'You're in right field tonight,' and he didn't say anything. He just said, 'OK.' So I said, 'Don't worry. If you screw up, it's Jack McKeon's fault.' "

Well, not only did Cabrera not screw up, he actually played right field better than Sammy Sosa, who has been playing it all his life. On Wednesday, Cabrera made spectacular back-to-back Web Gems to take hits away from Mark Grudzielanek and Sosa. Asked afterward if he is even amazing himself, Cabrera replied: "I don't know. I'll tell you after the World Series."

The World Series. Featuring the Florida Marlins.

Now there's a notion that approximately 98.4 percent of all Americans will no doubt rally around -- as baseball's biggest October disaster since the Baseball Network. But if you think that, it's only because you haven't been paying attention. Just because this team is The Wrong Story doesn't mean it still isn't A Great Story.

The manager (McKeon) is 72 years old. The catcher (Pudge Rodriguez) rises up a little larger every day to meet every October moment.

The track stars at the top of the order (Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo) might be the most disruptive tag team in baseball. The third baseman (Lowell) is a cancer survivor, was an MVP candidate, lost his job because of injury, then got it back in the middle of the League Championship Series after thumping a game-winning extra-inning home run.

And then there are these insane, dramatic, improbable, historic games they play. They've won one playoff game in which they trailed in extra innings, another in which they threw out the winning run at the plate with two outs in the ninth, another in which they gave up a game-tying two-run homer to Sosa with two outs in the ninth and another in which they trailed by three runs with five outs to go.

"Playmakers" should have scripts this great.

"For two months," Fox said, "I've been calling my wife and telling her, 'I just played in the best game of my life.' So when I called her last night (after Game 6), she just said, 'I know. You just played in the best game of your life.' And I said, 'I did.' "

Well, if they get involved in about a half-dozen more of them in the next week and a half, then maybe the poets will stop complaining. And don't bet against it, either.

The baseball poobahs thought they had it all figured until they let the Florida Marlins into their little postseason sweeps-month-and-nostalgia tournament. Then those darned Fish went and turned into the house guests who refused to leave -- not until they'd finished spraying yet one more case of Francois Montand Brut all over themselves.

"We've had three of these celebrations," said Mike Lowell, as the champagne flowed. "Now we want to have one more."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.