- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 16, 2003

CHICAGO — The Florida Marlins wore black caps last night, befitting their role as spoilers against those lovable losers, the Chicago Cubs.

But give the Marlins credit: For bad guys, they’re pretty 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 of 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 National League Championship Series.

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.

Wood trudged off the mound with his head down, flipping his glove into the stands as he hit the dugout steps. In the biggest start of his life, the Chicago Cubs’ ace couldn’t pitch his team into the World Series as the Marlins got seven hits and seven runs off Wood in 5⅔ innings.

Where did it go wrong for the Cubs? First, Josh Beckett shut them out in Game 5.

No sweat, the Cubs figured, not with aces Mark Prior and Wood available for the sixth and seventh games. The Cubs’ 20-something duo hadn’t lost on back-to-back days all season.

And they were just five outs away from the World Series with Prior pitching Tuesday night when they let a 3-0 lead slip away in Game 6.

The Marlins — with the aid of a souvenir-seeking fan who got in Moises Alou’s way as he went after a foul fly — rallied for eight runs, delivering a crushing defeat, and baseball fans nationwide began talking again about the Cubs’ fated futility.

But the Marlins and their 72-year-old manager, Jack McKeon, prefer to think they were simply the better team. And they will be a handful in the World Series for the Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees, who play the deciding game of the American League Championship Series tonight.

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 base runner — on pinch hitter Troy O’Leary’s home run.

Miguel Cabrera hit a three-run homer and made several fine catches in right field, a position he played for the first time Saturday. Playoff hero and Most Valuable Player Ivan Rodriguez scored twice and doubled home a run, giving him 10 RBIs in the series, a record. Even Derrek Lee and Alex Gonzalez, both batting below .150 in the series, contributed run-scoring hits.

Brad Penny, bumped from the rotation after a poor showing in Game 2, pitched a perfect fourth after starter Mark Redman departed trailing 5-3. Ugueth Urbina threw a hitless ninth.

When Jeff Conine caught a flyball in left field for the final out, the Marlins mobbed each other in jubilation as the Wrigley 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. Center fielder Juan Pierre estimated “97 percent of the world” wanted the Cubs to win.

The Cubs haven’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. Now they’re only the fourth team to overcome a 3-1 deficit in the N.L. or A.L. championship series.

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. And now they’re headed to Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park for another Series beginning Saturday.

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