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Two historic collisions, just one winner

MIAMI -- You can watch a lot of baseball games -- a hundred, a thousand, a million -- and not see one end like this:

Two momentous singles plopping onto the outfield grass. Two outfielders charging, scooping, throwing.

Two runners heading for home plate, realizing it's time to do their Jerome Bettis imitation. Two catchers, reaching for the baseball, but bracing for the tractor-trailer that's about to roar through their chest.

This was how a National League Division series ended Saturday in a stadium where, fittingly, almost everything great that has ever happened has involved men wearing shoulder pads: Two different throws in back-to-back half-innings. Two different collisions in the pit at home plate. Two very different outcomes.

One ball careened out of the glove of Giants catcher Yorvit Torrealba, and two humongous Marlins runs would score.

Then, barely more than 15 minutes later, another baseball stayed so firmly embedded in Pudge Rodriguez's mitt that when his teammate, Mike Lowell, was asked later what it would have taken to knock it out, he replied: "I don't know. Maybe a crowbar?"

No postseason series in history had ever ended with the tying run being thrown out at home plate, according to the research magicians at the Elias Sports Bureau. But this one had. So that means no postseason series in history had ever been decided by two throws to home plate, in each team's final at-bat. But this one had.

We know that when those two plays were over, the scoreboard at Pro Player Stadium read: Marlins 7, Giants 6. We know that when those two plays were over, the Giants were heading for the longest flight home of their lives -- and the Marlins were showering in Moet Chandon, their packed suitcases still sitting in the tunnel, unmoved.

We also know it's way, way, way too simple to say that their four-game playoff series could be summed up by two plays at home plate, even if it always seemed to be the Marlins who forced the action and the Giants who made every mistake. But when we think of this series, it will be hard not to think about this:

The baseball that trickled loose -- and the baseball that didn't.

What were the odds of this game, this series, coming down to that? Worse than the odds of a 72-year-old man hopping off his porch in North Carolina to become manager of the year. We know that. But that happened, too. Didn't it?

"I know I've never seen that before -- two throws like that," said Jeff Conine, the Marlin who made the throw of his lifetime with two outs in the ninth inning. "But that's the beauty of this game. I've been playing it professionally for 16 years, and I've never seen that before in one game."

So how could it happen in a game this important, this decisive, with so many eyeballs watching? Because baseball -- especially October baseball -- is the best reality show ever invented. That's how.

"All I know," said Marlins first baseman Derrek Lee, "is that it seemed like everything that could happen in a baseball game seemed to happen in these last two games."

You would have thought these teams would have found it impossible to outdo the spine-tingling 11-inning classic they played Friday. But there they were Saturday, rolling into the eighth inning, tied at 5-5, after yet one more pulsating postseason afternoon.

A four-run Marlins lead had vanished. The Giants were so close to bringing this series back to Pac Bell Park for a Game 5 Sunday, they could practically taste the sourdough. And then it happened ...

Throw No. 1
Two outs. Nobody on. Bottom of the eighth. No sign that anything particularly momentous is about to go on. Until ...

Pudge Rodriguez singles. Then Giants reliever Felix Rodriguez drills Derrek Lee in the side. Suddenly, the tying run is in scoring position for the next hitter, rookie Miguel Cabrera -- a guy whose unique big-moment presence makes you want to check his birth certificate to make sure he's really only 20 years old.

He'd been benched the day before after starting this series by going 0 for 8. But he was back in the No. 5 hole for Game 4, because his manager, Jack McKeon, just had a feeling about him.

"He's a big-game player, no question about it," McKeon said. "I wanted to get him back in the lineup because it just seems like over the last 10 days, something good always happens when he's at the plate."

And it would again. The first pitch he sees is a fastball away. Cabrera unleashes his gorgeous inside-out stroke and lines it into right field. It's his fourth hit of the day, making him the fourth rookie in history to get four hits in a postseason game. But that's just a note he can look up in a record book some day. What matters is what happens next.

Out in right field, Jose Cruz Jr. charges, sets, throws. Pudge Rodriguez pumps around third. An indelible October moment is seconds away.

Cruz was second in the league in assists this year, with 18. But this isn't a perfect throw. It two-hops toward Torrealba, a step up the line. Just as Torrealba gathers it into his glove, the Pudge-train arrives.

Rodriguez thumps into Torrealba's shoulder, swatting at the baseball with his left arm. But the throw is in time. So if Torrealba holds on, Rodriguez is out. Which is why 65,464 people freeze, not sure whether it's safe to roar or breathe.

And then the baseball dribbles away, out of the batter's box, hopping toward the on-deck circle. So the go-ahead run has scored. A stunned Torrealba doesn't move. So Lee restarts his engines and rumbles toward home. Finally, Torrealba and Felix Rodriguez lurch toward the baseball. But it's too late. Marlins 7, Giants 5.

"I had it in my glove," Torrealba would say later, in a clubhouse full of aching 100-game winners. "But I don't know where it went. I lost track of where the ball went. I guess they were screaming to tell me. But it was really loud, man. I couldn't hear anything."

As he struggled to hear, to get his bearings, to find the baseball, Lee was making what turned out to be the most important decision of the day -- to break for home and score that second run.

"I'm running to third anyway," Lee would say. "So once I get to third, I just stop and watch the collision. When I see the ball trickling away, I just have to see how far it gets away. When I was comfortable it was far away enough where I could score, I went. I didn't think it was that big a deal, to be honest with you."

But his teammates disagreed.

"What goes unnoticed," Lowell said, "is Derrek Lee's awareness that allows him to score that extra run. That's the winning run right there."

But think how close the Marlins came to scoring neither run? Had Torrealba had just another half-second to set himself, had Cruz's throw carried a few feet further and reached Torrealba on the first hop, had the baseball arrived a foot closer to home plate, this all might have been different.

"That was like this whole series," Lowell said. "Change a couple of things around, and we're 2-2, heading for San Francisco. Or going home."

Or just change the outcome of ...

Throw No. 2
Ugueth Urbina marches in to pitch the top of the ninth, to get three last outs. In his previous 35 games as a Marlin, Urbina had been scored on in only four. But the biggest ninth inning he has ever pitched would be far from automatic.

A Neifi Perez double and a J.T. Snow single make it 7-6 before Urbina gets an out. But then he gets his act together. A strikeout and a fly ball get the Marlins one out away. At this point, the only sound ever heard in Florida that was louder than this ballpark had to occur at Cape Canaveral.

But Urbina takes the wind out of the party by drilling Ray Durham in the leg. Now it's the Giants who have the winning run on base -- and the tying run in scoring position.

The hitter is Jeffrey Hammonds, a surprise addition to the lineup by Felipe Alou. Hammonds loops the first pitch into left field. As Conine begins to chase it, as Snow begins his sprint to home plate, a thousand thoughts pop through a thousand minds about what is about to happen next.

Would Conine get there in time to catch it? Would Snow be fast enough to score if he didn't? Would there be yet one more collision at home plate? And if there was, then what?

"When it first left the bat," Conine said, "I thought I had a chance to catch it. But when I realized it was hit kind of off the end of the bat, I knew I didn't want to dive and take a chance of not catching it and having both runs score. And I knew J.T. isn't the fastest runner around. So I stopped short and just tried to get set."

The baseball drops maybe a yard in front of him -- but hops directly into his hands. Of course. Conine's right arm has never been compared to Vladimir Guerrero's. But he has never gotten rid of a throw in his life as fast as he gets rid of this one.

Like Cruz's throw minutes earlier, Conine's heave is a couple of steps up the third-base line. But Rodriguez has just enough time to catch it, plant and wait for the steamroller he knows is coming.

Snow lowers a shoulder into Rodriguez's ribs. Snow stumbles and lands on home plate. Rodriguez tumbles backward, rolls over and lifts the ball into the air, still firmly in possession. Snow's head droops back into his hands. Urbina dives into his catcher's arms. And you realize what you've just seen:

History.

It was only the fourth postseason game ever, the second in the last half-century and the first in a series finale to finish with the tying run being thrown out at home plate -- on any kind of play, let alone a mirror image of a play the previous inning.

"Best play I ever made in my career," Conine would say, when all this had sunk in.

"Pudge was like the Incredible Hulk there," Lowell laughed. "Nobody was going to knock that ball away."

"I was out there at first base," Hammond said, "going, 'Let's go. Let's go. Oh. Ohhhhhh. Ohhhhhhh ... (insert bad, bad word here).' J.T. hit Pudge good, man. Pudge was flat on his back. When he went down on his back, I wasn't sure. I was hoping. But when he held up that ball, what more could you do? What more could you say?"

Well, you could ask: How, after all those wild twists and turns, could it have ended like this? Two hits. Two throws. Two pileups at home plate. Two outcomes that would change so many lives.

Think of all the things that had to happen for both of those plays to turn the Marlins' way? One of the best right fielders in the league (Cruz) makes a two-hop throw that arrives an instant too late? But a guy who, before September, had played only 14 games in the outfield in two years (Conine) gets his throw there a micro-second quicker, to a catcher who has just been on the other end of virtually the same play?

"Hey, that's the story of the Fish, man," said Rodriguez's backup, Mike Redmond. "We win like that. It may not be the prettiest or the easiest way to win. But it sure makes for a lot of excitement. My heart starts pounding about the second inning every night -- and it doesn't stop until the game's over."

There will be more October baseball games for those Fish. But even they have to know this: There will never be another one quite like this. A game of two throws, two runners, two fender smashers at home plate.

And somehow, a team that once was 10 games under .500 is the team that keeps playing. And the team that won 100 is the team going home. So what's the great baseball Octoberfest do for an encore to top this?

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.