Marlins pull off an all-time stunner

CHICAGO -- We all know in sports that things happen that can't possibly happen. We all know that any time the Cubs are playing baseball in October, the impossible becomes all too possible.

But how do we explain this? How do we explain what happened in Wrigley Field on a Tuesday night when the Cubs were five outs away from the World Series -- and wound up in a twilight zone of despair and disbelief?

Five outs away. A 3-0 lead. Mark Prior pitching a ferocious, give-me-the-ball-and-get-outta-the-way three-hit shutout. Cubs fans standing, roaring, basking in the moment wherever you looked -- even on the rooftops across Waveland Avenue.

This was not the look of a baseball game about to veer in a whole new historic direction. This was not the sound of a group of people that would soon find itself filing off into the night in shock and confusion.

This was not a recipe even the Florida Marlins would have drawn up for the most remarkable win in the history of their franchise.

But this is the power of sports that makes watching these games so relentlessly addictive. This is the awesome tug of the amazing sport of baseball. And sadly, these are the Cubs. Just when you think they've run out of tragic scripts for their never-ending archives, they even top themselves.

Marlins 8, Cubs 3. Courtesy of an eight-run eighth inning by a team that hadn't gotten a hit with a man in scoring position in three days. Couldn't happen. Impossible. Absurd. Inexplicable.

But it happened. Didn't it? Just to make sure, can we watch it again? Maybe if we watch it again, six or 10 or a thousand times, we'll believe we saw it. And maybe if the Florida Marlins watch it again, they'll finally believe they did what they did.

"Brian Banks and I came in here," said left fielder Jeff Conine, in one of the most raucous clubhouses in postseason history, "and looked at each other, and we said, 'What just happened out there?' "

"Honestly," said first baseman Derrek Lee, "I'm in shock. I know we've done this a lot this season. But at some point, you have to say it's gotta run out. I mean, how many times can you do that?"

"We were like, 'When you figure out what happened, fill me in,' " Banks laughed. "Guys came in here and looked at each other, and there was just a sense of shock that what just happened had happened. It was an amazing thing. Whether you were a fan or a player, it was just a shocking situation."

Well, if they were in shock after winning, you can only imagine the scene down the concourse in the locker room of the team that lost.

There was silence in that room for a long, long time. A half-dozen players sat in the middle of the room, eating. The rest were nowhere to be found, thinking thoughts we'll never know.

For most, this was not a moment in their lives they felt like recreating or dissecting. It was a moment to forget. A moment to shove into a dark corner of their brain where they store the memories they wish would disappear.

"If I go home thinking about this one," said Sammy Sosa, "I'm not going to get any sleep."

The first inclination is to talk about where this game fits in Cubs history, in the ghoulish portion of that Cubs museum -- the wing where the baseball is still hopping through Leon Durham's legs 19 years later, where Mule Haas' fly ball is still hiding behind the sun 74 years later, where a goat still roams the halls 58 years later.

But that would be way too small a way to think. We need to set this game in its place in baseball history, because the only games even remotely like it are among the most talked about baseball games ever played.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, just four other teams have ever come back to win postseason games in which they've been at least three runs behind and no more than six outs from calling it a year:

  • One was the 1960 Pirates, in Game 7 of the World Series, in what we now know as The Bill Mazeroski Game.

  • The next was the 1975 Red Sox, in Game 6 of the World Series, in what we now know as The Carlton Fisk Game (co-starring Bernie Carbo, who hit a game-tying three-run pinch-hit homer off Reds closer Rawly Eastwick in the eighth).

  • Then came the 1980 Phillies, in the fifth game of a best-of-five NLCS, in what we now know as The Nolan Ryan Game (because it was Ryan who couldn't hold a three-run lead in the eighth).

  • And finally, there were the 1986 Red Sox, in Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS, in what we now know as either the Dave Henderson Game or The Donnie Moore Game (because it was Henderson who hit the home run off Moore with two outs in the ninth that kept the Angels from heading to their first World Series).

    But that's it. Those aren't just baseball games. Those are epic baseball games. They're games you are liable to stumble across on ESPN Classic at 2 in the afternoon or 3 in the morning, any month of any year.

    And now there's this one.

    We'll never forget the sound in Wrigley Field in the bottom of the seventh inning, after Mark Grudzielanek singled in the run that put the Cubs three runs ahead. It was a sound you could feel in your rib cage, because it carried a rumble, a clap of thunder, an electric current rippling through every body in the park.

    It was the sound of people who were finally certain this was what it felt like to watch the Cubs -- the Cubs -- go to the World Series. It was the sound of people who knew this game was over, because Mark Prior was not going to let them lose.

    Even the Marlins heard that sound. They're a team that specializes in the miracle victory, the improbable comeback. But even they were just about resigned to their fate.

    They had three hits off Prior. All three were singles. One of them was an infield hit that wound up conking Cubs first baseman Randall Simon on the head. "He hadn't given up anything," Lee said, with the utmost admiration.

    Prior was 12-1 in his last 13 starts. He was the most dominating pitcher left in the playoffs. This was his time, his night, his way of announcing to the world he had that aura only the best pitchers on earth ever have.

    "The way he was dominating the game," Conine admitted, "I thought, 'Well, hell, we gave it a great
    run.' "

    Then there was one out in the eighth. Prior had Juan Pierre buried, 2-and-2. Pierre fought off one 94-mph smoke ball. Prior reached back and launched the next one, his 104th pitch of the night, at 96. Pierre flicked it inside the left-field line for a double.

    But it felt like just an intermission in the Mark Prior Show. Prior burst ahead of Luis Castillo, 1-and-2. Then 2-2. And 3-2. Castillo fouled off one 94-mph fastball. Then another. And then it happened.

    This was a moment no Cubs fan will ever forget. They will always see this foul ball twisting toward the brick wall that juts out toward the left-field foul line. They will always see Moises Alou angling over, setting himself, leaping, reaching. And they will always see the fan in the blue Cubs hat and the headphones over his ears, cupping his hands, deflecting this baseball away from Alou, keeping this at-bat alive.

    Alou spun away in anger, spitting out words we can't repeat. Fans around this anti-Jeffrey Maier began berating him, abusing him, showering him with guilt and beer -- but not quite in that order.

    Three hundred feet away, in the visitors' dugout, Marlins players looked at each other, wondering if they'd just seen what they'd seen, hoping it meant what they thought it meant.

    "Mike Redmond turned to me," Lee said, "and said, 'OK, let's make that kid famous.' "

    And after that, everything seemed to change. Prior's next pitch was ball four -- but worse. It skipped past Paul Bako, and there were runners on first and third. Then Prior had an 0-2 count on Pudge Rodriguez and tried to strike him out with a curve ball. But he hung it on the inner half of the plate, and Rodriguez roped it into left. 3-1.

    Still, Prior had a two-run lead. And Miguel Cabrera chopped his next pitch toward short, where Alex Gonzalez -- the guy who had the highest fielding percentage of any shortstop in the league -- was surely going to turn it into an inning-ending, game-saving double-play ball.

    But these are the Cubs, masters of the unthinkable. Gonzalez hadn't committed an error in more than two months, since Aug. 13. But he chose this time, this unfathomable moment to have a double-play ball clank off his glove.

    "For whatever reason, I didn't catch the ball," Gonzalez said later. "The spin on the ball ate me up."

    And after that, the spin on this game ate the Cubs up, eating their World Series dreams alive. Lee doubled. Tie game. Prior exited, after 119 pitches Kyle Farnsworth entered to try to keep it close. Nope. Intentional walk. Sacrifice fly. 4-3, Marlins. Then another intentional walk. And then the final dagger ...

    Mike Mordecai, a bench guy who had made the first out of the inning, a man who had only entered this game because of a double-switch the inning before, scorched a three-run double off the ivy in left-center. Three RBI -- equaling Mordecai's RBI total for the previous two months. Of course. And this game was history.

    The sounds were different now. Except for the angry mob descending on the fan in left who had gotten in the way of Alou, there were more tears in this park than words.

    "I don't think I've ever heard that many people get that quiet that fast," Mordecai said.

    Only once all year had the Marlins scored eight runs in an inning. And only three times in history had a team scored at least eight times in an inning in a postseason game in which losing would have meant elimination. But all of those were early-inning eruptions, by the '68 Tigers (10-run third), the '92 Pirates (eight-run second) and 2001 Diamondbacks (eight-run third).

    So no team as close to the end of the road as the Marlins had ever had an inning like this. And no team as close to the World Series as the Cubs had ever given up an inning like this.

    So in the Cubs locker room, the ghosts were everywhere -- the ghosts of 1984, and 1969, and 1945. The ghosts were riding the wave of every question. Someone asked Alou whether, if he were a Cubs fan, he would find it hard not to think about curses.

    "I'm not a Cubs fan," Alou said. "I'm a Cubs player. And I don't believe that crap."

    But others were more philosophical. There were, after all, two teams playing.

    "That was crazy," said Doug Glanville. "But so what? Tomorrow's Game 7. A lot of things had to fall our way for us to get this far. But everybody's got to have a story. Every story we have, they have a story. They think they're ordained. We think we're ordained."

    But only one of them can come out of this series clinging to their ordination. And it all comes down to one final ball game -- Kerry Wood versus Mark Redman.

    "It's Game 7," said Kenny Lofton. "There are no other words. Game 7. I've got nothing else to say. You've got to win. Game 7. You've got to win. Whatever all that stuff was that happened, it doesn't matter. Got to win tomorrow."

    They've got to win Game 7, all right. They have Kerry Wood on their side, throwing the baseballs. He has never lost to the Marlins. He has already won one sudden-death ball game this October, beating the Braves in Game 5 of the NLDS. He needs to lift this team out of the dark clouds and carry them home.

    Or else ...

    Over the last two seasons, Wood and Prior have started back-to-back games 17 different times. Only once have the Cubs lost both of those games. If they lose two in a row in this setting, then what? Uhhhhh, don't ask.

    Stuff happens in sports. If that stuff happens to the Cubs, it's a tragic tale, all right. But there's another team, with another story. And the two of them were just mixed up in one of the most mind-boggling games ever to appear in front of our eyeballs.

    So very late on a night of a baseball game that will always keep on playing, a group of Marlins -- Andy Fox, Brian Banks, Jeff Conine -- found themselves looking at each other one more time and shaking their heads. They needed to see this one again, just to believe it. Fortunately, they'll get that chance.

    "You can bet that game will be on ESPN Classic," Banks said.

    "Yeah," Fox laughed. "I think it's on at midnight."

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.