October 15, 2003

Baseball in October

It's hard not to feel bad for Cubs fans. They haven't experienced a trip to the World Series in nearly 60 years, and they haven't won a championship in 95. Meanwhile, the Florida Marlins have been a franchise for all of 11 years, they won the championship in 1997, and now they are going to their second World Series. It's definitely not fair.

And the Cubs had it. They were so damn close. Up three games to one, going back to Wrigley, with Mark Prior lined up for Game Six and Kerry Wood in reserve for Game Seven.

They had a 3-run lead in the eighth inning of Game Six and saw the Marlins score eight straight runs in what was one of the most painful losses I have ever seen a team experience.

Then last night, the Cubs fought back from an early 3-0 deficit to take a 5-3 lead into the fifth inning. Wrigley was rocking, there was a huge crowd forming on the streets surrounding the stadium, and you could almost feel it in the air. And then the Marlins scored six straight runs and it was all over.

Kerry Wood was shaky right from the very beginning. He was quite obviously very pumped up for the game and he was over-throwing all of his pitches in the first couple innings, bouncing many of his breaking-balls. He gave up a triple to Juan Pierre leading off the game, walked Ivan Rodriguez two batters later and then served up a 3-run bomb to Miguel Cabrera. After just 22 pitches, it was 3-0 Florida.

But then the Cubs fought back behind, surprisingly enough, Kerry Wood's bat. With a man on base, two outs and the score 3-1 Marlins in the bottom of the second inning, Wood crushed Mark Redman's 3-2 offering into the bleachers in deep left-center. And just like that, the game was tied.

The atmosphere in and around Wrigley was electric after Wood connected. He had immediately given up three runs to put his team in a hole and then he quickly took all of those runs back with a monstrous home run. It was a brand-new game. Wood held the Marlins scoreless in the third and the Cubs added on two more runs, courtesy of a Moises Alou homer with Sammy Sosa on base.

I'll admit that I thought the game was over as soon as Alou hit it. Wood seemed to be over his early-game control problems, the Cubs had a 2-run lead after being down right away, and the whole thing just seemed right. Each time FOX showed the Wrigley crowd, every person was standing and cheering. The crowds outside the stadium kept growing. It just had to be.

Except it wasn't. The Florida Marlins, as they've done this whole post-season, fought back and won a game by putting an offensive blitz on their opponent. They knocked Wood out of the game in the sixth inning after he had already allowed seven runs, and then tacked two more on against Kyle Farnsworth the next inning.

In sports, the cliche that "no one expected them to win" is used far too much and in far too many instances where it is simply not true. I can't begin to count the amount of times I have heard a player on a team that was favored, either in a game or a series, say in an interview that the team was able to win because "no one expected them to win."

No matter if a #1 seeded basketball team just defeated the #8 seed or a football team favored by 25 points sweated out an overtime win, one of the players on the winning team will tell anyone who will listen about how they beat the odds and won, even though "no one expected them to win."

Well, for once, the cliche is true. I defy you to find one person not directly affiliated with the Florida Marlins and/or not on a massive amount of drugs who thought before this season began or even before the All-Star break that the Marlins would be in the World Series. Hell, I bet you couldn't find many people who thought last month that they'd be in the position they are in right now.

The Marlins don't have the best reputation as a franchise, they hadn't had a winning-record in six years, their best pitcher blew out his elbow a month into the season, they got off to a bad start and fired their manager, and they hired a 73-year old replacement who had never been to the post-season before in all his years of managing.

And now it is October 16th and the Florida Marlins are in the World Series, waiting to see who their opponent will be.

Jack McKeon deserves as much credit as any manager has ever gotten. He took over a team that was not playing well and that was going through all sorts of issues related to the injury of their star pitcher. He came in, got everyone on the same page, and led them to a 75-49 record.

Over the next couple of weeks you are going to hear all about how the Florida Marlins got to the World Series because they have such great team speed and they put pressure on the other team by stealing bases and all that other stuff that makes Joe Morgan smile. Don't buy it for a second.

Florida has a total of six stolen bases this entire post-season and their best basestealer, Juan Pierre, the man who is supposed to wreck havoc on the bases, has two steals and has been caught three times.

No, this Marlins team wins because it is deep and it gets production from many different sources. They don't have any superstars, although Ivan Rodriguez is pretty close, but they get solid starting pitching, they have a good bullpen, they play good defense and their offense is deep and balanced.

They have on-base ability (and speed) at the top of the lineup in Pierre and Luis Castillo, they have power in the middle with Ivan Rodriguez, 20-year old phenom Miguel Cabrera, Derrek Lee and Mike Lowell, and the bottom of their lineup - Jeff Conine and even Alex Gonzalez - are not automatic outs. They also have some good bench players, including Juan Encarnacion, a starter the entire year who hit .270 with 62 extra-base hits and 94 RBIs, and now finds himself on the bench because of Florida's depth.

I'm not particularly happy about the Marlins being in the World Series. Something inside of me feels like they don't "deserve" it as much as the Cubs do, as misguided a thought as that probably is. They have such a limited history as a franchise, with some very questionable incidents sprinkled in, and yet they are now in a position to win their second championship. I wanted the Giants. I wanted the Cubs. I wanted pretty much anyone but the Marlins.

That said, this is a good baseball team and they are, admittedly, a very fun team to watch. They pitch, they play defense, they score runs, they have some good stories on their roster and they have shown an amazing ability to fight back and handle adversity. And I admire that, even if their owner is a fairly horrible person and even if their franchise has had far too much success in its short history.

Of course, now the big question is who will have the honor of playing those pesky Marlins in the World Series...

As if introducing the world to both Ed Hillel and Steve Bartman wasn't enough, the 2003 post-season has now given us the Florida Marlins in the World Series, and tonight we all get a chance to watch Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez decide who their opponent will be.

As rivalries go, it does not get any better than the Yankees and the Red Sox. And as pitchers go, it does not get any better than Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez. Tonight's game has history, it has emotion, it has drama, and it has two of the best pitchers in the history of the sport.

I don't think I have ever been this excited for a baseball game in my entire life. If you are interested in seeing history, seeing the very best in the world compete on the biggest stage, this game is for you.

There are so many plotlines for this game that it is almost too much to think about. Beyond the obvious, which is the intense rivalry between the two teams that has gone on over the last century or so, you have the fact that Pedro and Clemens hooked up last week and it led to a very ugly set of incidents.

And then you've got the Red Sox, one of the most storied franchises in baseball, but with such a long history of disappointment and heartbreak. And the Yankees, who have experienced enough winning over the years for a dozen teams. And you've got Roger Clemens facing off against the team he starred on for so many years. And you've got Pedro Martinez, perhaps the most dominant pitcher of his generation, on the biggest stage he has ever been on.

Tonight's game is what baseball is all about. History and emotion and disappointment and euphoria, all wrapped up into one game, on one night, in Yankee Stadium. The House that Ruth Built, the house that Gehrig and Mantle and DiMaggio starred in. The place that has been home to such an incredible amount of winning, to so much excitement and drama.

And now it is the place where the Boston Red Sox will try to overcome their past, to overcome that ridiculous curse, to beat the team that has knocked them down so many times.

Anyone else have goosebumps just thinking about it?

Over the last few weeks, I have repeated a statement about Pedro Martinez that I think correctly depicts my feeling about him as a pitcher...

"Pedro is still Pedro and I'll only believe he loses a deciding game when I see it, and even then I will be skeptical."

Well, from the looks of his last start, Pedro is not quite Pedro right now. I don't know what ails him, but whatever it is has caused him to be not quite "right." His fastball doesn't have nearly as much life on it as it usually does and he is relying heavily on his curveball. He's not striking as many people out, he is giving up hits in places he usually doesn't, and he is actually giving up runs - 10 in 21 innings.

He has not been Pedro this post-season. He has not been the guy with the 2.22 ERA this season or the guy who went 4-0 with an 0.82 ERA in September. He hasn't been the guy who went 20-4 last year, or the guy who went 23-4 in 1999 or the guy who had a 1.74 ERA in 2000.

If the Red Sox are to win this game, to go to the World Series, to take another step closer to the championship that has eluded them for so long, they are going to need Pedro Martinez to be Pedro Martinez.

They need the guy with the 93 MPH fastball and that nasty curve. They need the guy who challenges every hitter, and then makes them look absolutely silly with that extraordinary changeup. They need whatever ails him right now to go away for just a few hours on an October night in the Bronx. They need to have the greatest pitcher in the world out on that mound tonight.

Will they get that guy to show? Who knows, he may not even be around any longer. But if he is, there is nothing more incredible to me than the thought of seeing the best pitcher in the world, on top of this game, on the game's biggest stage, going against Roger Clemens and the most storied franchise in baseball history.

Whatever does happen, I'll be watching, goosebumps and all. Because there is nothing quite like baseball in October.

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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