Marlins' hopes slip-sliding away

MIAMI -- They'll always have their World Series rings, the ones so huge it practically takes a fork lift to lug them around. But there won't be a second set of rings now. Not this year.

The Florida Marlins can do the math. They'd prefer not to. But the math doesn't lie. Not in the third week of September.

The Marlins aren't high-jumping over four teams to win the wild card. Not this year. They're not going to come back from 4½ games down with 13 to play. Not this year. No team in their position has ever made it to the postseason. And unfortunately for them, there's a reason for that.

What happened to the Marlins in 2003 made for one sensational Fish story. But this year, their story is a different kind of tale -- a tale about the one that got away.

It probably got away once and for all Monday, when the Cubs zipped through town on a convenient route from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh and split a doubleheader that the Marlins absolutely, positively had to sweep.

Those sweep dreams died once Cy Young candidate Carl Pavano got pounded for 12 hits in a 5-1 loss in Game 1. So it took an out-of-the-ozone win from a guy who hadn't made a start in six years -- David Weathers -- for the Marlins even to salvage that split.

Afterward, Weathers tried his best to summon up memories of crazy pennant-race finishes he's seen and concluded, hopefully: "You never know what can happen in a 13-day period."

But the fact is, the Marlins' only hope was to sweep that doubleheader, pull within two games of the Cubs in the loss column and then unleash Jack McKeon on every cathedral in Florida to pray for help.

Instead, they're still four back in the loss column. And even McKeon couldn't do much more than sit at his desk after that Game 1 defeat and pronounce the patient to be in a critically critical condition of criticalness with the ominous words: "We're still on life support."

Life is good. Life support is bad. And there just isn't enough support in the baseball universe to save the Marlins' year-after-championship season anymore. But McKeon knows the cold truth is that there probably wasn't enough, anyway.

"We're still in trouble, even if we sweep," the manager said, mangling tenses the way he mangles names, after that sweep had already become impossible. "We had a long way to go."

Yep, too long, probably. True, they were 6½ out in that wild-card race just three weeks ago -- and then charged all the way back to within 1½ in an amazing span of seven games.

But then came The Hurricane That Ate Their Season. And while we'll never know what would have happened had that hurricane not roared through their neighborhood when it did, it's safe to wager that nobody on this team will be naming any children "Frances" in the next several lifetimes.

"We were really on a roll until the hurricane hit us," McKeon said -- and there's no arguing with that math.

The Marlins had won seven games in a row, 10 of 12 and 14 of 18 at the time. They were playing their best baseball since they staged that stunning bloodless coups at Yankee Stadium last October. And the next team about to take a dip in their Fish tank was the wild-card leader just above them, the Cubbies.

What a scene it would have been: A.J. Burnett versus Carlos Zambrano in Game 1, Dontrelle Willis versus Matt Clement in Game 2, Josh Beckett versus Greg Maddux in Game 3. With 40,000-60,000 people in the seats -- several of whom might even have been spotted not rooting for the Cubs.

Except, as we all know now, the Cubs never made it. Frances took Burnett's spot in the rotation, wiped out the whole series and left both teams on Weather Channel watch for the next four days.

So it wound up being 17 days before the Cubs actually made it to Florida. And in between, a whole lot changed:

  • The Marlins had one home game moved to Wrigley Field (where it miraculously turned into a Cubs home game).

  • They had two more home games against Montreal moved to U.S. Cellular Field on the other side of Chicago -- in a series that was actually finished in Florida. Making it the historic First Continuous Series Ever Played In Two Different Time Zones (CT, ET).

  • They lost all their off days for the rest of the season -- and wound up having their last 30 games squished into a ridiculous 27-day period.

  • And their biggest loss of all was Burnett, who had just finished going 4-0, with a 1.84 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 29 innings over his previous four starts -- until his reconstructed elbow abruptly started to ache.

    So by Monday, when the Cubs finally did arrive, they instead found about 700 people in the seats for the first pitch -- and Weathers, of all people, starting the second game of that doubleheader with a Marlins hat on his head.

    Back when those Cubs games were originally scheduled, Weathers wasn't even employed, let alone wearing that Marlins hat. He'd just been axed by the Astros the week before -- and didn't sign with Florida until Sept. 9.

    So when that hurricane barreled toward Boca, let's just say he wasn't sitting around going over the hitters, in preparation for his Sept. 20 start against the Cubs.

    "That," he laughed, was about the last thing I was thinking of. The first thing I thought was, 'I'm sure glad I'm not in South Florida.' "

    But the fact that not only was he in South Florida by Monday -- but was being viewed, at least temporarily, as the man who had saved the Marlins' season -- tells us a little something about the Marlins' dire state of affairs these days.

    When they made all those widely hailed deals at the trading deadline, they made them with the assumption that, even without Brad Penny, they had plenty of starting pitching. But by Monday, thanks to Burnett's injury and all those doubleheaders, their biggest problem was that they no longer had enough starting pitching.

    It isn't all that hurricane's fault, obviously. But it's undeniable that that hurricane really did change just about everything.

    Asked if he would always wonder how this season would have turned out had Frances just made a U-turn out to sea, Beckett replied with a succinct: "Yeah, I will."

    "I think things would have been different," Beckett said. "I don't know how different. But (it) definitely would have been different than this."

    At least the Marlins, much to their credit, are not an excuse-making kind of team. So even though they have been given a rare opportunity in life to blame the weather and get away with it, they've chosen the high road.

    "I really have to give our guys credit," McKeon said. "No one knew we were going to have to play three doubleheaders in 11 days. No one knew one of our best pitchers was going to go down. No one knew we'd have to play three home games in another city. But we're building character. That's how I look at it."

    What they haven't been building much of, though, is rallies. They scored three runs or fewer nine times in their first 17 games after the hurricane. But then they wouldn't be human if all those games in all those places in that short a period hadn't taken a toll.

    "I'm not into excuses," Beckett said. "But our position players are freaking exhausted, man. When we got swept in that doubleheader by Montreal last week, somebody said, 'You looked bad.' And I said, 'We weren't bad. We were tired.' And we are. And it's not like we can get through it and look forward to Monday or Thursday, either. Because we don't have an off day the rest of the year. Oct. 5 -- that's our next off day."

    Last Oct. 5, they were getting ready to play the Cubs in the NLCS. This Oct. 5, things don't figure to be quite that exciting. This Oct. 5, that next off day figures to be followed by about 100 consecutive off days. That's just reality.

    Last year, they never stopped finding ways to keep playing. But this year, it's time to officially anounce the Florida Marlins are about out of miracles.

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.