SERIES: NL championship series; Cubs lead 3-2.
The Marlins will try to take the first step Tuesday night, when they battle Mark Prior and attempt to avoid the first playoff elimination in franchise history for a second straight game.
Florida stayed alive in the series Sunday night thanks to its own ace, Josh Beckett. The right-hander threw a two-hitter and struck out 11 to give the Marlins a 4-0 victory, sending the series from south Florida back to Chicago for Game 6 at what is expected to be a cold and rainy Wrigley Field.
“I had an idea we were going to go back home,” said Cubs manager Dusty Baker, who is trying to guide a team into the World Series for the second straight season. “Now we’re going back to our fans and our people, and it’s going to be exciting and electric.”
The festive, raucous atmosphere of Games 1 and 2 at Wrigley is certain to be duplicated Tuesday, as long-suffering Chicago fans will be looking for their team to earn its first trip to the World Series in 58 years.
To accomplish that, the Cubs will turn to Prior, who along with Kerry Wood has anchored the team’s pitching staff during Chicago’s postseason run. The 23-year-old Prior defeated the Marlins 12-3 in Game 2, allowing three runs— two earned—and eight hits in seven innings.
“Now, we go home and we’ve got two of our big studs on the mound,” second baseman Mark Grudzielanek said. “Of course, we’re going to be confident.”
“I’m so excited. This is great,” said Pavano, who will make his first start in 2 1/2 weeks. “We’ve come a long way this year to get to the point where we’re at. I feel proud to be given the ball to keep us going.”
Pavano made 32 starts this season before being moved to the bullpen for the playoffs. He has excelled in the relief role, pitching 4 2-3 scoreless innings over five appearances.
“Pavano matches up good against the Cubs,” McKeon said. “And he’s pitched extremely good against the Cubs. We talked to the coaches and decided this is the way we’re going to go.”
Pavano, though, will be looking for his first career win at Wrigley Field.
Game 5 may have created some bad blood between the teams, as Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa took exception to a high-and-inside fastball from Beckett in the fourth inning. Sosa responded by shaking his head and pointing his bat toward the mound.
The incident didn’t elevate hostilities to the level of the current ALCS matchup, and Sosa acknowledged that the pitch may not have been intentional.
“He probably wasn’t throwing at me,” said Sosa, who suffered a cracked batting helmet when when he was beaned by Pittsburgh’s Salomon Torres in April. “But because of what happened before, maybe that was my reaction.”
Said Beckett: “He overreacted a lot. I don’t know if he was trying to pull a Boston Red Sox-Yankee thing. It was pretty ignorant. I’m not trying to hit him.”
The Marlins will be counting on their best postseason hitter, catcher Ivan Rodriguez, to help spark the offense against the overpowering Prior. Rodriguez has hit safely in each of his nine playoff games with the Marlins and has driven in a run in seven of them.
However, neither club has been dependent on just one player to generate offense in this series. The teams have combined for an NLCS-record 19 home runs, five more than the previous mark set last year by San Francisco and St. Louis. They hit 13 in Games 1 and 2 at Wrigley.
If the Marlins force a Game 7, they’ll be facing Wood on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field. At least one Marlin is certain that matchup will happen.
“There’s still going to be a Game 6,” Beckett said, “and a Game 7.”
PROJECTED LINEUPS: Marlins - CF Juan Pierre (.305, 1 HR, 41 RBIs), 2B Luis Castillo (.314, 6, 39), C Rodriguez (.297, 16, 85), 1B Derrek Lee (.271, 31, 92), 3B Miguel Cabrera (.268, 12, 62), RF Juan Encarnacion (.270, 19, 94), LF Jeff Conine (.282, 20, 95), SS Alex Gonzalez (.256, 18, 77). Cubs - CF Kenny Lofton (.296, 12 HRs, 46 RBIs), 2B Grudzielanek (.314, 3, 38), RF Sosa (.279, 40, 103), LF Moises Alou (.280, 22, 91), 3B Aramis Ramirez (.272, 27, 106), 1B Randall Simon (.275, 16, 72), SS Alex Gonzalez (.228, 20, 59), C Damian Miller (.233, 9, 36).
MARLINS PROBABLE STARTING PITCHER: Pavano (12-13, 4.30 ERA). The right-hander threw an inning in the Game 2 and 3 losses of the NLCS. He pitched well in his lone start against the Cubs this season, allowing three runs and seven hits in seven innings of a 5-1 loss at Wrigley Field on July 9. Pavano is 1-3 with a 4.37 ERA in four games, including three starts, in his career against Chicago.
CUBS PROBABLE STARTING PITCHER: Prior (18-6, 2.43). The right-hander is 2-0 with a 1.69 ERA in two starts this postseason, pitching 16 innings with 12 strikeouts.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Marlins - Florida faced playoff elimination Sunday for the first time since Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. The Marlins have won all four postseason series they’ve played in. … The Marlins are trying to become the first team since the 1996 Atlanta Braves to rally from a 3-1 NLCS deficit. … RHP Beckett indicated he would be available to pitch in relief in a possible Game 7. Cubs - Chicago’s two hits in Game 5 tied its worst effort in a postseason game. The Cubs had only two hits in Game 3 of the 1906 World Series. … The last pitcher to shut out the Cubs in a playoff game was Babe Ruth. The Bambino blanked Chicago in Game 1 of the 1918 World Series against the Boston Red Sox.
HOME/ROAD RECORDS: Marlins - 46-35 on the road in regular season, 2-2 in postseason; Cubs - 44-37 at home in regular season, 2-2 in postseason.