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Marlins facing mighty task

MIAMI -- Well, those sneaky Florida Marlins have 'em right where they want 'em now, all right.

OK, possibly not.

This is clearly their secret Fish Ball plan, right? That old theory that you're actually supposed to take the lead in these postseason series -- who buys into that anymore? To properly enjoy the thrills of victory, you need to dance on the high wire, sweat a little. That's how it's done.

So these back-to-back 6-1 losses to the mighty Yankees in Games 2 and 3 of the World Series? All part of the Florida Marlins' master plan, right out of their heavily classified NLDS and NLCS handbooks. Obviously.

OK, possibly not.

"Noooo, I wouldn't say we have them right where we want them," said Marlins first baseman Derrek Lee after a game Tuesday night in which his team steadily unraveled against a Yankees juggernaut that was playing its 29th World Series game since 1996. "I know they're the Yankees, but I don't care who you're playing. You don't want to keep coming from behind like this."

Well, they may not like it, and they may not plan it. But the Marlins keep forcing themselves to do it anyway. It's the only way they know. Worked against the Giants. Worked against the Cubs.

Might not work so hot now, against a team which knows that if it doesn't win the World Series, its owner might deport the whole bunch of them to Afghanistan.

"You can definitely tell they've been here before," said Juan Pierre of the steely-eyed Yankees. "You could see it just from the way the crowd was in New York. It was more like business as usual. It wasn't like those Chicago fans. They'd never been there, and they wanted it bad. So their fans were screaming and yelling every pitch. But the New York fans were much more business-like, almost like they expect that. And that's how their players are. You can tell by the way they play. They don't panic."

We're not sure exactly when it was that the Yankees were supposed to panic in this game. But there were at least a couple of hours there where the Marlins -- and their Schilling-esque ace, Josh Beckett -- might have raised the Bombers' pulse rate a little.

In the first World Series start of his life, Beckett became just the fifth starting pitcher in the last 25 years to steamroll the first 10 hitters he faced in his Series debut.

"Josh just amazes me, what he does," said Marlins reliever Chad Fox. "Just the way he approached those guys was really special."

Yep, Beckett picked right up where he left off against the Cubs, all right. For a while.

But when you're playing the Yankees this time of year, there's always That Moment. You know what we mean. There's always That Moment when some little twist of fate -- a hop, a hit, a call, a Jeffrey Maier -- seems to go the Yankees' way.

And the next thing you know, that team they're playing is saying, "Uh-oh."

"That's the way I look at those guys in the postseason," Fox said of the pinstripers across the field. "They know exactly when to rise to the occasion."

They also recognize that occasion when they see it. And they saw it in the fourth inning Tuesday, blinking at them like a neon sign only they could see.

The Yankees were trailing at the time, 1-0. But not for long. Derek Jeter, the real Mr. October of our time, busted up Beckett's no-hitter with a double. Then Jason Giambi marched up and ran the count to 3-and-2. This friends, would be That Moment No. 1.

Beckett snapped off an unhittable breaking ball on the corner. But when the review from home-plate ump Gary Darling came, he described it as: "Ball four." Beckett begged to differ. His manager, Jack McKeon, begged to differ. And his pitching coach, Wayne Rosenthal, begged to differ. Didn't matter. Giambi trotted down to first base.

Three batters later, the bases were loaded. Jorge Posada was the hitter. On the seventh pitch of a riveting October duel, Beckett appeared to place a 97-mile-per-hour fastball on the outside corner. But this would be That Moment No. 2, because Darling ruled it ball three. Again, his teal-clad audience begged to differ. Again, that was their problem.

So Beckett launched a 3-2 fastball, very close to the knees. Posada took it. Darling's right arm never moved. The technical term for that is: "Bases-loaded walk." The scoreboard suddenly read: Yankees 1, Marlins 1.

A whole lot happened after that, obviously: A 39-minute rain delay. ... Pudge Rodriguez's failure to score from second in the sixth inning on a Miguel Cabrera single. ... Two more hits by Jeter. ... A decision by McKeon to let Beckett bat in the seventh, 105 pitches into his evening, so he could bunt a runner to second. ...

Hideki Matsui's game-winning single off Dontrelle Willis with two outs in the eighth. ... And a bullpen blowup in the last 1 1/3 innings by Willis, Fox and Braden Looper that transformed this game from a quasi-thriller into a Yankees stampede.

But afterward, it was those fourth-inning calls that lingered over this game like that big green blob on the old Doppler that dumped all those raindrops on 65,000 people.

"No question about it," McKeon grumbled. "We thought they were strikes. Certainly high enough. But we're not gonna get into that."

Whereupon McKeon got into it some more, by adding: "You saw both clubs arguing about the calls. So take it from there. That's all I have to say."

And that was actually more than Beckett had to say. At the time Darling was making those calls, Beckett didn't quite look like the president of the Gary Darling Fan Club, mouthing a visible obscenity on camera on his way to the dugout. But afterward, he was doing his best to stay above the fray.

"Yeah, I got some tough calls," Beckett said. "But the way I look at the umpires, their job is just as hard as mine is. I never, ever say anything bad about umpires. I've got to throw every pitch. He's got to call every pitch. ... I just throw the pitches. If he doesn't call them strikes, he doesn't call them strikes.

"Guys who complain about umpires are excuse-makers," Beckett said. "And I'm not an excuse-maker."

But back there behind the plate, Rodriguez saw the game changing before his eyes.

"Those two pitches (the 3-2 to Giambi, the 2-2 to Posada) were very close," Rodriguez said. "He could have called them both ways. But the umpire saw them as balls, so that's what they were -- balls. But that was a very key point in the game right there. Those two pitches, those two balls -- they changed the game.

"They changed it because they changed the way Josh pitched. He had to pitch with the bases loaded, and that's a tough situation. It frustrates a pitcher when he makes pitches on 3-and-2, and he thinks both times they're strikes, and the umpire doesn't give him the calls. That's frustrating to a pitcher, man. He probably thinks he has to throw a ball down the middle to get a strike."

Rodriguez downplayed any suggestions that Beckett lost his cool because of those calls. And when you look at the big picture, there was some truth in that.

In 7 1/3 innings, he gave up just three hits -- all to Jeter. And Beckett followed his sensational 11-strikeout start against the Cubs in Game 5 of the NLCS with a 10-strikeout show in this game, making him just the fifth pitcher in history to spin back-to-back double-figure strikeout games in the postseason. All you need to know is that the other guys on the list are Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, John Smoltz and Mike Mussina.

But all that brilliance added up to in the end was an eighth-inning exit and a loss -- and one more steep October canyon for his team to climb out of. They know the drill, all right. But even Houdini couldn't escape forever. And he never had the pleasure of being tied up against the Yankees.

"We're not going to lay down and die," Fox said. "If we were, we'd go in there and tell Jack to just go give them the trophy right now. I'm a pretty good judge of character, and I know how this team is. That's what makes this group special. We know from our little experience in the playoffs together that we can come back, because we've done it so much. And we'll pull the positive from that experience.

"But we also know that's a different kind of team over there. This is the first time we've played a team where, when you get down, you feel down -- because you know who they have in the back end of their bullpen (Mr. Mariano Rivera). You see him warming up, and you're almost like, 'Uh-oh.' "

For the record, they got two innings worth of uh-ohs from Rivera in this game. And we all know how that turns out. The only time in the Joe Torre era when Rivera didn't produce those uh-ohs (Phoenix, Arizona -- 2001) was the only time the Torre Yankees have ever pulled ahead in a World Series and had it slip away.

So that's the cold, hard history the Florida Marlins have to face now. Their own history of miracle comebacks dates back like 16 days. The Yankees' history of closing these World Series deals goes back like eight decades.

"Unless we go out and win this thing now, we know how people will take it," Fox said. "It will always be, 'Yeah, sure, they got lucky against the Giants, and they got lucky against the Cubs. But they couldn't do it against the Yankees.'

"That's what will happen. We know that. That's not fair. But the game's not fair. We hear people say we don't belong here. We know we do. But now we have to prove it."

Except now they don't have any goats or curses to come to their rescue. Steve Bartman's postseason heroics are over. And Jose Cruz Jr. won't be available to drop any more fly balls. The Marlins have to deal with the mighty Yankees now.

And asking the Yankees for any help this time of year is like asking the Enron board of directors to run your 401-K. You can ask, but good luck trying to collect.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer at ESPN.com