Young pitchers propel Marlins
But give the Marlins credit: For bad guys, they're pretty darned good.
And they're headed to the World Series, culminating a wild ride for a team that began the season with few fans and modest expectations.
Josh Beckett, working on two days' rest after pitching a two-hit shutout Sunday, came out of the bullpen to stymie Chicago again and help Florida win 9-6 in Game 7 of the NL championship series.
"Nobody expected us to be in the playoffs, and look where we are now," said Ivan Rodriguez, the series MVP. "That's the best feeling -- for me, my team and the people of Florida."
Fans at Wrigley Field can blame the Cubs curse, a subpar showing by Kerry Wood and the souvenir-seeking spectator, who some thought played a role in his team's collapse in Game 6.
The Marlins and their 72-year-old manager, Jack McKeon, prefer to think they were simply the better team. And they'll be a handful in the World Series for the Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees, who play the deciding game of the AL championship series Thursday night.
"The good Lord has been looking after us this whole month," McKeon said. "I thank God for the great bunch of players I have. They don't quit. They love each other. I'm so happy for their sake that they have an opportunity to go to the World Series."
In keeping with the way the Marlins won all season, they had plenty of heroes responding to the winner-take-all pressure of Game 7.
Beckett provided the biggest boost. Showing no signs of weariness from throwing 115 pitches in Game 5, the right-hander came on to start the fifth inning with the Marlins ahead only 6-5. He pitched four innings and allowed just one baserunner -- on pinch-hitter Troy O'Leary's home run.
"It's not that miraculous," Beckett said. "It was my bullpen day. I probably threw a couple more pitches than I would have in my bullpen. But that's what we needed to do to win, and it worked out."
One night after beating Cubs ace Mark Prior, the Marlins treated Wood even more harshly. Miguel Cabrera hit a three-run homer and made several fine catches in right field, a position he played for the first time Saturday. Rodriguez scored twice and doubled home a run, giving him 10 RBIs in the series, a record.
"Nobody thought in a million years we could come in here and beat Prior and Wood," said Juan Pierre, who had two hits. "We shocked the world."
When Jeff Conine caught a flyball in left field for the final out, the Marlins mobbed each other in jubilation as the crowd of 39,574 fell silent. Then came scattered boos -- likely for the Cubs -- followed by polite applause -- likely for Florida.
The Marlins know they disappointed a lot of people by winning. Pierre estimated "97 percent of the world" wanted the Cubs to win.
Chicago hasn't been to the World Series since 1945, but to see the Marlins celebrate a pennant was almost as surprising. They began the year with just one winning season in their tumultuous 10-year history, and they changed managers in May on the way to a 19-29 start.
But rookies Dontrelle Willis and Cabrera helped revitalize baseball in South Florida, and the bandwagon grew rapidly during their September surge to win the wild-card race.
The Marlins came from behind to eliminate NL West champion San Francisco in the division series. Now they're only the sixth team to overcome a 3-1 deficit in a best-of-seven series.
"They refused to be put away," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. "When I talked to some of the Giants, the first thing they told me was don't underestimate them. They've got a heck of a team. We weren't underestimating them at all."
On Wednesday, the Marlins came from behind for the sixth time in their seven playoff wins. They won for the third time in four games at Wrigley Field. And this time they needed no help from any Cubs fans, totaling eight hits and seven runs against a laboring Wood, who threw 112 pitches in 5 2-3 innings.
The Marlins improved their all-time record in postseason series to 5-0. They won the only other Game 7 they played in the 1997 World Series.
Now they're headed to Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park for another Series beginning Saturday, and McKeon has the hunch a lot of fans will cheer for the Marlins.
"The Cubs were always America's favorite," he said. "I think we're the darlings of the baseball world now. I think we'll have all those people rooting for us, because they're seeing an exciting team play."
Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press