All-Star handles backup role well

Updated: October 8, 2003, 1:54 AM ET
Associated Press

CHICAGO -- Like an overlooked kid on the playground, All-Star third baseman Mike Lowell waited until the 11th inning for a chance to play in Game 1 of the NL Championship Series Tuesday night.

And when manager Jack McKeon finally put him in the game, Lowell won it.

Pinch-hitting for the first time this season, Lowell homered on a 3-2 pitch from Mark Guthrie leading off the 11th, and the Florida Marlins beat the Chicago Cubs 9-8.

Florida departed from its customary winning formula. The Marlins played uncharacteristically shaky defense and relied on power -- four homers -- rather than speed to spark their offense.

But the Marlins nonetheless won in their final at-bat for the third consecutive game. And they won because they had an All-Star on the bench.

Lowell broke his left hand Aug. 30 and was on the disabled list until the final day of the regular season. Because rookie Miguel Cabrera has been playing well, McKeon has been reluctant to rush Lowell back into the lineup, even though he led Florida this season with 32 homers and 105 RBI.

As it turned out, Florida's new super sub came in handy. Lowell hit a splitter from Guthrie over the head of center fielder Kenny Lofton and into the basket near the 400-foot sign.

"It's the biggest home run I've hit," Lowell said. "I was looking at Kenny Lofton, hoping he didn't have a bead on it. Things worked out nice."

Lowell started only one of Florida's four games in the division series against San Francisco, and Cabrera might not be leaving the lineup anytime soon. He had four hits and three RBI in the series clincher Sunday against the Giants, and he hit a solo homer in the third inning Tuesday.

Lowell has said he wants to play but has praised Cabrera and declined to complain about being relegated to backup duty. He admits he has been rusty and says his left hand is less than 100 percent.

Maybe that's why it was the right fist Lowell raised in triumph as he trotted around the bases.

"It couldn't have happened to a greater guy," McKeon said. "Mike has been hurt, and Cabrera has done a terrific job. It has been tough to get Mike at-bats, but he has handled it like a pro. He's a team player. He understands the situation.

"I'm happy to see him deliver the winning blow and make him feel like he's part of this thing, too."

The homer came in Lowell's eighth at-bat since breaking his hand, and it was his second career homer as a pinch-hitter.

"I'm not used to the pinch-hitting thing," Lowell said. "I was just trying to stay loose from the seventh inning on with dry swings and running up and down the steps. I was ready for the at-bat."

At the outset, Florida looked like the team that began the year 19-29, rather than the club that has baseball's best record since. Usually a strong fielding team, the defense unraveled likes the laces on a cheap glove, and misplays played a part in two of Chicago's four first-inning runs.

But Florida overcame the early deficit with three homers in the third off Carlos Zambrano. Ivan Rodriguez hit a three-run shot, Cabrera homered to tie it, and Juan Encarnacion put the Marlins ahead.

Rodriguez made a bid to be the Marlins' last-inning hero for the third straight game when he hit a two-run single in the ninth to put them ahead 8-6.

But Ugueth Urbina, who became the Marlins' closer in late September, blew the save. Lofton doubled, and with two outs Sammy Sosa homered on a 1-1 pitch to force extra innings.

"It kept going back and forth," Lowell said. "It was weird. It was an exciting game, kind of like a boxing match."

And Lowell's swing delivered the biggest blow.

Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press