Marlins becoming masters of the thriller

MIAMI -- They could feel those hearts around America breaking. They could sense those ratings plummeting. So it's time now to thank the Florida Marlins for all they've done to try to keep interest alive in this Cubbie-and-Red-Sox-free World Series.

The Marlins could have won themselves a nice, routine 6-1 World Series game Thursday night. But heck, if they'd done that, dials would have been clicking over to "ER" all across the continent.

So of course, the Marlins let the Yankees slowly whittle that 6-1 lead to 6-2. And then 6-3. And then 6-4.

Of course, the Marlins let the Yankees bring the tying run to the plate in the ninth inning -- in the person of a hitter so hot (Bernie Williams), the Dade County Fire Department twice rushed to home plate to douse him in mid-at-bat.

Of course, they had to bring in their closer (Ugueth Urbina), one night after he blew a save that almost ended the competitive portion of the World Series.

And then, of course, they survived -- by getting the final out on a ball hit so hard that the man who caught it, first baseman Derrek Lee, said: "That ball caught me more than I caught it."

Well, whatever happened out there, we know Bud Selig is eternally grateful. Finally, he has a bunch of guys in the World Series who understand the significance of the whole ratings concept.

"Oh yeah," said Florida's Andy Fox. "We're all about marketing nowadays."

Well, they can market this: The Florida Marlins are one win away from (gulp) winning the World Series.

They now lead the mighty Yankees in this Series, 3 games to 2. They're apparently ready to bring back their best pitcher, Josh Beckett, on three days' rest Saturday to try to win it in Game 6 in New York. And if they pull this thing off, they'll make baseball history.

Because they'll be the first team in history to win a World Series, even though eight out of 10 Americans undoubtedly still couldn't name their entire starting lineup.

"You know, that's what ticks me off," Beckett grumbled. "Nobody gives us any credit for being a good team. It's always curses and billy goats. That's what makes me mad. It always has to be about the other team, and what they did wrong. It's never about what we did."

Hmmm. Never?

Well, this is where we might ordinarily start poking the Yankees in the ribs, for being the first team ever to bench two 30-homer guys (Jason Giambi and Alfonso Soriano) in the same World Series game.

Or for running a starting pitcher (David Wells) out there who last did a calisthenic in eighth-grade gym class -- and then blew out his back in a pivotal World Series game.

Or for undoubtedly becoming the first World Series team creative enough to run a reliever out there who hadn't pitched in four weeks two days in a row (Jeff Weaver in Game 4, then Chris Hammond in Game 5).

But if we did that, it wouldn't be a fitting tribute to the team that's actually winning this World Series. So forget we mentioned any of that.

Here's what the Marlins did:

  • They came from behind to win for the seventh time (out of 10 wins) in this postseason.

  • They got seven dominating innings from starter Brad Penny, who became the fourth pitcher in the last 40 years to beat the Yankees twice in one World Series. It's possible you've heard of the others: Sandy Koufax (1963), Bob Gibson (1964) and Randy Johnson (2001).

  • They scored in three of the first four innings after Wells left, piling up six unanswered runs after the Yankees had taken a quick 1-0 lead in the first.

  • They batted .500 for the night (4 for 8) with men in scoring position.

    And then, just when they were in danger of turning this game into a blowout, they remembered what this October baseball was really all about:


    "That's just the way we do it," said reliever Chad Fox. "We've got to make it exciting. We can't just have a 6-1 win. I don't know what causes that, but we've got to make it exciting. That's pretty much how we've done it from Day 1. If you've watched us in the postseason, you know every game has to be a nail-biter."

    Which leads to the question that America demands to be asked at moments like this:

    So how are Fox's nails, anyway?

    "They're gone," he said, before leafing through the Manicures section of the Yellow Pages.

    Somehow, this would become another evening to place yet more nails on the endangered-species list. Even though that took some doing.

    As the ninth inning began, the Marlins still led by four (6-2). So of course, they let the Yankees creep steadily closer. And closer. And closer. Until there they were with just one out, their once-cushy lead down to two, their closer in the game, and Williams at the plate, riding his hottest streak of October (6 for his last 10, plus a sacrifice fly).

    "That's not a guy you want up there at all," Penny said. "You want to keep him out of the box right now in those situations. What's he got -- the most home runs in postseason history? (Correct. 19. So he'll take "World Series History" for $200, Alec.)

    "I was inside watching on TV," Penny reported, still a little queasy at the memory of it. "And first pitch, Pudge called a fastball. And I said, 'No. You can't throw him a fastball first pitch. That's what he's been hitting.' "

    So naturally, Williams hit it. High. And far. And back-back-back-back-back toward the fence in right-center. Even for the Fish, who ought to be used to these chills and thrills by now, this was a little too chilling and just a tad too thrilling.

    "To be honest," Penny said, "I almost passed out."

    Back went right fielder Juan Encarnacion and center fielder Juan Pierre, until there was no more ballpark left to cover.

    "I was definitely holding my breath," Lee said. "In this park, you never know. Some nights it carries. Some nights it doesn't. So when it got up in the air, I wasn't sure. Not the way Bernie's been hitting. He's been hitting everything so hard."

    But of course, this baseball carried "only" 390 feet -- in one of the few stadiums on earth with a 395-foot alley in right-center. Of course, Encarnacion gathered it in. Of course, the smelling salts were then passed to Penny. There was just one out left to get.

    Of course, however, the man who would have to make it, Hideki Matsui, would be the man who has been the Yankees' toughest out in the entire month of October. And of course, he then hit a ground ball so hard, it started a brush fire that quickly raged out of control in three Florida counties.

    But of course, Lee flashed that Gold Glove and picked it out of the night. And of course, he charged toward first base, stomped on the bag and pumped his fist, as 65,000 people finally exhaled for the first time in 20 minutes.

    This was more vintage Fish Ball. They've had a postseason so wild and stressful, they need a full-time stable of cardiologists, psychiatrists and manicurists on hand at all times.

  • They've won three extra-inning games (fourth team in postseason history to do that in one year).

  • They've won three games they trailed by at least three runs (fourth team in postseason history to do that, too).

  • They've won four games in their final at-bat. (And no team has ever won more than four in one postseason.)

  • And they've won six games that were decided, in some way or other, on the final pitch of the game.

    So granted, they're not the Cubs. And they're not the Red Sox. And they apologize to the American people for that from the bottom of their hearts. But they love a good thriller more than Stephen King. You at least have to give them that.

    We've commissioned a group of prominent researchers to determine if the Marlins have ever won a game the easy way. In June maybe? Or May? Or possibly 1994? They must have done it once, right? Just to prove they can?

    "Aw, I don't know, man," said third baseman Mike Lowell. "My memory's not that good. We haven't won any in the last month, I know that. It seems like we go down to the wire every time.

    "Well, I just want one more down to the wire," Lowell said, with keen awareness of this monumental October moment. "And then we can pass out the ulcers in the offseason."

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer at ESPN.com