Marlins 4, Mets 3

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MIAMI (AP)—With rainy weather, apathetic fans, unsettled ownership and losing records, the Florida Marlins have provided comic relief in recent seasons.

Look who’s laughing now.

The surprising Marlins beat the New York Mets 4-3 Friday night to clinch their first playoff berth since winning the 1997 World Series. They’ll face the NL West champion Giants in a best-of-5 series beginning Tuesday in San Francisco.

“We’re happy to get in, but this is just the beginning,” said Derrek Lee, who drove in two runs. “We want to go deep in the playoffs.”

The Marlins trailed Philadelphia in the wild-card race last Saturday, but pulled away with five consecutive wins. At 90-70, they’re 20 games above .500 for the first time since ’97.

Closer Ugueth Urbina began hopping in celebration as center fielder Juan Pierre settled under a flyball for the final out. Jubilant Marlins then piled on top of each other near the mound, and soon they were pouring champagne on each other.

“We always went to the playoffs in high school,” said 23-year-old pitcher Josh Beckett, Florida’s probable starter in the opening playoff game. “This time I actually get to drink beer.”

The victory put 72-year-old Jack McKeon in the postseason as a manager for the first time. Florida is 74-48 (.607) since he took over May 11.

“We’re all going to smoke cigars tonight,” said McKeon, who has several boxes of them in his office. “This is the most fun I’ve ever had with any team. I love these guys.”

Pierre, a catalyst all season, filled that role again in the clinching victory. The leadoff man stole two bases to set a team record with 64, singled three times to reach a career high with 203 hits and played a part in Florida’s first three runs.

Carl Pavano (12-13), the No. 5 starter on a strong pitching staff, limited New York to six hits and three runs in 7 1-3 innings. He retired 11 in a row during one stretch.

The Marlins’ rapidly expanding bandwagon attracted 33,215 fans, the largest crowd of the week and the fourth-largest of the season in Miami.

“If they keep coming, we’re going to keep winning,” All-Star third baseman Mike Lowell pledged. Florida has won 15 of its past 17 home games.

There was a roar when Jeff Conine, a regular on the 1997 team, hit his fifth homer since rejoining Florida on Aug. 31. Lee triggered more cheers by driving in two runs with a double and a single.

Chad Fox struck out Timo Perez with the tying run at second to end the eighth. Urbina retired Roger Cedeno with runners at first and third to end the game and earn his sixth save in eight chances since Florida acquired him in July.

“I’m proud of the kids and happy for the fans,” said owner Jeffrey Loria, who bought the troubled franchise in February 2002. “We made believers out of the doubters. This is just the beginning of a wonderful road for us.”

With the victory, Florida eliminated the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, still vying for the NL Central title, from wild-card contention.

Few foresaw a playoff berth for the Marlins, whose only other winning season came six years ago.

They won despite a modest payroll of $50 million, far less than the season-opening $117 million payroll of the last-place Mets. The Marlins won despite losing their best pitcher, A.J. Burnett, to an elbow injury in April, and Lowell to a hand injury during the peak of the playoff race. And they won despite a slow start that prompted a managerial change, with McKeon replacing Jeff Torborg.

The Mets tried to postpone any celebration with a comeback in the final two innings. In the eighth Cedeno walked, Joe McEwing singled and Mike Piazza singled home a run to make it 4-2. Fox replaced Pavano, and Tony Clark hit a sacrifice fly that Juan Encarnacion caught near the wall in right-center. Perez then struck out.

Urbina walked two in the ninth and threw a wild pitch before retiring Cedeno to end the game. The Mets sat on their bench and watched as the Marlins’ celebration began.

“A game is a game,” Mets manager Art Howe said. “We just hoped to make it a little tougher on them than we did.”

Among the Marlins’ attributes is a knack of coming from behind, which they did against Aaron Heilman (2-7).

New York scored in the first, but Florida answered in the bottom of the inning on Lee’s two-out RBI double.

The Marlins went ahead to stay in the third. Pavano led off with a double, took third on Pierre’s infield hit and scored on a sacrifice fly by Ivan Rodriguez.

Pierre walked to start the fifth, advanced on a groundout and scored on Lee’s two-out single for a 3-1 lead. Conine hit his third home run of the week to start the sixth and chase Heilman, who allowed four runs and eight hits in five-plus innings.

New York scored in the first when Piazza singled with two out and came homeon Clark’s double.

Notes

With his 63rd stolen base in the first inning, Pierre broke the team record he and Luis Castillo shared. Pierre added another in the sixth. … At 9-4 in Miami, Pavano leads the Marlins in home victories. … Heilman droppedto 1-3 on the road with an ERA of 7.96.

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