CHICAGO (AP)—Only the Chicago Cubs could write a twisted ending like this.
And only a team like the Florida Marlins could make it seem so cruel.
Given one final chance to beat the demons of their past and the Marlins, the Cubs couldn’t get it done. Kerry Wood failed to hold an early lead and Wrigley Field fell silent as Florida capped its stunning NLCS comeback with a 9-6 win in Game 7 Wednesday night.
“The Cubs were America’s favorite. I think we’re the darlings of the baseball world now,” Marlins manager Jack McKeon said.
Destiny? Fate? The fan in Game 6? Whatever. The Cubs were unable to end their long, strange drought because MVP Ivan Rodriguez, Miguel Cabrera and these remarkably resilient Marlins won their third straight game to clinch the National League pennant.
“Nobody expected us to be in the World Series,” Rodriguez said.
The wild-card Marlins will head off to face Boston or the New York Yankees on Saturday night.
Even more stinging for Cubs’ fans is that this marks Florida’s second Series trip in only 11 years of existence. Chicago has been absent since 1945, prompting the team’s sad little motto of “Wait ‘Til Next Year.”
“I felt I let the team down, the organization down and the city of Chicago down,” Wood said. “I choked.”
Cubs manager Dusty Baker was not nearly as harsh.
“We didn’t lose the pennant, the Marlins won it,” he said. “We were close and the Marlins took it from us, it’s as simple as that.”
Baker’s 4-year-old son Darren added a final word when his dad was done talking.
“The Cubs will win next year,” he said.
Home teams had won 12 of the last 13 times a postseason series went to Game 7. But the Marlins became just the sixth team to ever overcome a 3-1 deficit in a best-of-seven series.
“We shocked the world! We shocked the world!” Marlins leadoff man Juan Pierre said.
Even after being shut out in Game 5 by Josh Beckett, Sammy Sosa and the Cubs were in excellent position as they returned home. But aces Mark Prior and Wood lost on back-to-back days for the first time this season and suddenly a sure thing had turned sour.
“Those are two tough guys to beat, I’ll tell you what,” Beckett said. “We got a break. Things work out for a reason, I guess.”
A sellout crowd of 39,574 minus the infamous Steve Bartman—the fan who deflected a foul ball during the Marlins’ eighth-inning rally in Game 6, he was at home with a police guard—had the old ballpark shaking as Wood and Moises Alou homered for a 5-3 lead.
But Wood could only flip his glove into the stands when the Marlins rallied. They scored three runs in the fifth, Luis Castillo hit an RBI single in the sixth and Gonzalez added insurance with a two-run double in the seventh.
Florida has never lost a postseason series in its young history, going 5-0. That includes a thrilling Game 7 victory in 11 innings over Cleveland for the 1997 title.
At 72, McKeon is the oldest manager to reach the World Series. That seemed farfetched when the Marlins were 19-29 back in late May, but McKeon, who had replaced the fired Jeff Torborg earlier in the month, somehow steered them this far.
“I told them the first meeting that if they worked hard, they’d be playing in October,” he said.
Cabrera and Rodriguez once again played starring roles for Florida. Cabrera, a 20-year-old rookie, hit his third homer of the series and drove in four runs while Rodriguez singled home a run that gave him an NLCS-record 10 RBIs.
Down 5-3 in the fifth, Rodriguez doubled home a run and Cabrera tied it with an RBI grounder. Derrek Lee, whose double keyed the eight-run rally in Game 6, followed with a single that put Florida ahead 6-5.
The Cubs had been hoping this would be the year they got a chance to win their first Series championship since 1908.
Instead, add this failure to all of their previous disappointments. That includes wasting a 2-0 lead over San Diego in the best-of-five NLCS, blowing a late lead in the 1969 NL race and losing Game 7 of the 1945 World Series at Wrigley Field to Detroit.
Baker was trying to become the first manager in history to lead two different teams to the World Series in consecutive years. Rather, he fell short, just as he did last year when his San Francisco Giants lost the last two games of the World Series at Anaheim.
“Was it disappointing? Yes, it’s disappointing,” Baker said. “We weren’t underestimating them at all.”
Pierre led off the game with a triple that one-hopped off the right-field wall, and Sosa slipped and fell chasing it.
Rodriguez walked and Cabrera launched a drive way back into the left-center field bleachers. Rodriguez put his arm in the air as he circled the bases while a fan threw back the souvenir.
Wood put a charge into a 3-2 pitch, sending a shot into the left-center bleachers. He never even looked at the ball, dropping his head as he began his tying trot.
Wood, with six career homers in the regular season, kept up his recent production at the plate. He had five RBIs this postseason—more than AL All-Star hitters Jason Giambi and Nomar Garciaparra combined.
Alou put Chicago ahead 5-3 with a two-run homer onto Waveland Avenue in the third. He also made a couple of neat catches, once flipping the ball into the seats—right near the spot that caused so much trouble a day earlier—after adiving grab that ended the fourth.
O’Leary’s homer was the 23rd of the NLCS, the most ever in a postseason series. Seattle and New York hit 22 in the 1995 AL division series. … Rodriguez has gotten a hit in all 11 of the Marlins’ postseason games thisyear.