- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 8, 2003

CHICAGO — Mike Lowell sure wrecked this Wrigley Field celebration in a hurry.

With the old ballpark still shaking after Sammy Sosa’s tremendous, tying homer with two outs in the ninth inning, Lowell led off the 11th with a pinch-hit home run that sent the Florida Marlins over the Chicago Cubs 9-8 last night in the National League Championship Series opener.

In a game featuring seven homers, four triples and six doubles, Sosa’s two-run shot was clearly the most dramatic. He finally delivered a big postseason hit, and when the ball landed beyond the left-field wall, it turned Waveland Avenue into Bedlam Boulevard.

Too bad for the Cubs, Lowell’s drive won it. He had help, too — playoff star Ivan Rodriguez homered and drove in five runs for Florida.

An All-Star third baseman, Lowell missed almost all of the final four weeks because of a broken left hand, and has played sparingly in the postseason. He was ready for his first pinch-hitting appearance this year, batting for winning pitcher Ugueth Urbina and launching a drive over the center-field wall off Mark Guthrie.

The sellout crowd of 39,567 started rocking early as Moises Alou homered in a four-run first. But the Marlins, who posted three comeback wins over San Francisco in the opening round, stormed back when Rodriguez, rookie Miguel Cabrera and Juan Encarnacion homered in a five-run third.

Braden Looper pitched the 11th for a save, giving the Marlins a win and a nice omen. The last 10 teams to win the NLCS opener have reached the World Series.

After avoiding Barry Bonds in the first round, Marlins manager Jack McKeon said he would pitch to Sosa in this series. And it was a good decision — up until Slammin’ Sammy took his final swing.

Sosa tied it with a no-doubt drive, taking his signature hop after he connected off Urbina.

Sosa pointed to the sky as he touched home plate, as much in joy as in relief. The slugger with 539 career homers had been only 5-for-31 with one RBI in postseason play, and his October slumps were starting to cloud his regular-season accomplishments.

Rodriguez put the Marlins ahead 8-6 with yet another big postseason hit, a two-run single in the ninth. He delivered right after a disputed play that put the Cubs in jeopardy.

With runners on first and second and one out, Luis Castillo hit a slow grounder to second baseman Mark Grudzielanek. He fielded it cleanly but fumbled it as he tried to tag Juan Pierre and start an inning-ending double play.

Pierre landed on the infield grass, and scampered to second as the bases became loaded.

Alex Gonzalez, with a history of clutch homers for the Cubs, came through again with a two-out, two-run shot in the sixth off starter Josh Beckett. His opposite-field shot into the basket hanging off the right-field wall made it 6-6.

The Marlins had threatened to break it open in the top of the sixth. Leading 5-4, they started the inning with two singles, but had to settle for Jeff Conine’s sacrifice fly off starter Carlos Zambrano.

Marlins shortstop Alex Gonzalez made the play of the game to help keep it tied at 6-6.

Down 4-0 in the third, Florida struck back in startling fashion — three homers in a span of only 13 pitches! And they did it against a pitcher who rarely serves them up — about one every 24 innings.

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