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MARLINS 9, CUBS 6

Cubs foiled in Game 7

Marlins headed to World Series after stunning comeback

CHICAGO -- Urgent memo to the winner of tonight's American League Championship Series Game 7 between the Red Sox and Yankees: If you think your series has been an emotionally and physically draining affair, wait until the World Series. Remember that laughable Florida Marlins team that gave up 14 first-inning runs in a 25-8 loss to the Red Sox at Fenway on June 27?

They've improved.

My, have they improved.

So much so, that not only did they rebound from a 16-22 start to win the National League wild card, they stunned defending league champ San Francisco in the first round. So much so that last night they completed a most unlikely turnaround from a 3-1 NL Championship Series deficit, rallying from a 5-3 hole with six runs over the last five innings to beat the Chicago Cubs, 9-6, and capture a berth in the Fall Classic.

The Cubs' storybook run toward their first World Series since 1945 got derailed last night by an equally compelling tale: the first World Series for 72-year-old manager Jack McKeon, the third-oldest manager in major league history who guided the Marlins to his first postseason appearance in 13 seasons as a big league skipper.

"I had a strong belief that we could go all the way. I have a lot of faith in prayer, and the Good Lord has been looking after us," said McKeon, who took over for the fired Jeff Torborg May 11 and gradually harnessed Florida's exceptional talent. "We have an outstanding group of men who love each other.

"I'm happy to be going to the World Series. This is probably the biggest moment in my pro career. I can't even explain it. It probably hasn't soaked in yet.

"These guys believe in themselves, and believe me. We're going to give the American League a tough shot, too."

Series MVP Pudge Rodriguez went 1 for 4, with an RBI double. Jeff Conine went 3 for 3 with two runs and Miguel Cabrera blasted a three-run homer and drove in four to lead the Marlins, who advanced to their second World Series. Their first was in 1997 -- only their fourth year of existence -- when they beat Cleveland in seven games. That veteran-oriented team was dismembered in a slew of offseason transactions to pare payroll.

This team is younger, quicker, and scrappier, and like the 1997 team showed a penchant for showing no trepidation against storied franchises -- even as sold-out home crowds and national television audiences root against them. Last night's triumph marked the Marlins' sixth comeback win of this postseason.

"We tried to put them away, but they wouldn't go away," said Cubs manager Dusty Baker. "It wasn't for lack of effort. They have a good team; I talked to the Giants before the series, and the first thing they told me is don't underestimate them."

Many did. After jumping out to a 3-1 series lead, the Cubs were considered a shoo-in to advance. But Josh Beckett shut out the Cubs in Game 5, then Florida turned back Mark Prior in a controversial Game 6. Last night, the Cubs sent their hottest pitcher, Kerry Wood -- who entered with a 4-0 mark and 2.10 earned run average in six starts against the Marlins -- to the mound and he promptly gave up three runs in the first inning.

The Cubs evened it up in the second with Wood supplying a two-run homer off Mark Redman. It was the first postseason home run for Wood, who is known for his prowess at the plate. It was also the fourth home run ever hit by a pitcher in the NLCS, the first since Chicago's Rick Sutcliffe in the 1984 NLCS against San Diego.

Wood then retired the side in the third, striking out Rodriguez swinging and Cabrera looking to end the inning. The Cubs took the lead in the bottom of the inning on a two-run homer by Moises Alou.

But Wood struggled again in the fifth. After yielding a walk to Brian Banks, a fly out to Juan Pierre, and a walk to Luis Castillo, Wood gave up a double to Rodriguez that scored Banks and sent Castillo to third. Castillo then scored on a ground out by Cabrera and Rodriguez scored on a single by Lee -- 6-5, Florida.

For Rodriguez, it was his 10th RBI of the series, an NLCS record.

"You have to play this game hard, to the last out, and don't give up," Rodriguez said. "We worked hard since spring training and prepared for this kind of baseball, and we did it.

"We just kept coming back, we kept fighting. When you do that, good things happen." Florida then brought in Beckett, who retired the side in the fifth inning.

The Marlins increased their lead to 7-5 in the sixth when Conine lead off with a single and advanced to third on a Pierre single. That was it for Wood, as Baker spelled him with Kyle Farnsworth. Castillo singled off the reliever, who failed to catch the comebacker then lost track of it as the ball caromed off his glove.

Wood went 5 2/3 innings, giving up seven earned runs on seven hits and four walks while throwing 112 pitches. He struck out six. Beckett, meanwhile, retired the side again, finishing the inning by getting Eric Karros looking.

The Marlins added two more runs in the seventh when an Alex Gonzalez double scored Mike Lowell and Conine. In the bottom of the inning, former Red Sox outfielder Troy O'Leary belted a pinch-hit solo home run off Beckett to pull the Cubs to 9-6. It was Chicago's first run off Beckett in 11 2/3 innings.

In the bottom of the ninth, former Red Sox reliever Ugueth Urbina led off by hitting Aramis Ramirez with a pitch. Then he struck out Randall Simon and Alex Gonzalez swinging. He got Paul Bako to fly out to left to end the game, pick up the save, and set off a raucous on-field celebration by the Marlins. Many of the Wrigley crowd of 39,574 applauded the home team for its efforts.

"It's always painful to lose, especially at this point," said Baker, who took the Giants to the World Series last season. "I'm proud of our guys to have accomplished what we did and to get to this point in a short period of time. I tip my hat to the Marlins. They took it."

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