Beckett, Marlins put Cubs celebration on hold

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 13, 2003

MIAMI - Josh Beckett and the Florida Marlins put history on hold - at least for a couple of days.

With the Chicago Cubs set to clinch their first World Series trip in 58 years, Beckett buzzed Sammy Sosa in pitching a two-hitter and leading the Marlins to a 4-0 win Sunday in Game 5 of the NL championship series.

Ivan Rodriguez, Mike Lowell and Jeff Conine homered and the Marlins played the role of ultimate spoiler - at least to thousands of Cubs fans at Pro Player Stadium and millions nationwide - in closing their gap to 3-2 and sending the series back to Wrigley Field.

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Even with nearly a century of failure in their past, the Cubs are not about to panic. At least not yet.

Mark Prior is set to start in Game 6 Tuesday night. If he's needed, fellow ace Kerry Wood would pitch Game 7 the next day as Chicago tries to reach the Series for the first time since 1945.

The Cubs already had made arrangements with the Marlins to use champagne chilling in the Florida clubhouse for a celebration, if necessary. It wasn't.

Instead, Florida had its bags packed for Chicago well before the game began. And the Marlins looked for any edge to prolong the season, as evidenced by their Sunday morning chapel service at the stadium.

''It was a little more motivational than usual and we had a lot more people there,'' team chaplain Chris Lane said.

Not that the Marlins needed any extra help, not with Beckett on the mound.

At 23, the hard-throwing righty pitched the best game of his young career, striking out 11 and allowing only two singles and a walk. He shut down a Cubs team that had totaled 33 runs in the first four games of the series.

A night earlier, the Cubs romped 8-3 and roughed up Dontrelle Willis. Having been run out of his own ballpark, the lively rookie was jogging around the stadium early Sunday, virtually unnoticed by fans in the parking lots. He had a big smile, and so did everyone else wearing teal-and-black a few hours later.

Only three times in LCS history and five times in World Series play have teams come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a best-of-seven series.

The Marlins got closer when Lowell hit a two-run homer in the fifth off Carlos Zambrano in the fifth, and Rodriguez and Conine later connected.

When he batted in the eighth, Beckett drew a standing ovation from the towel-waving Marlins fans in the crowd of 65,279.

Then he went out and finished for the first complete game of his 51 starts in the majors. The two-hitter tied an NLCS record for fewest allowed in a complete game.

Beckett allowed only one ball beyond the infield before the Cubs got their first hit, a soft single by Alex Gonzalez with two outs in the fifth. Moises Alou also singled in the seventh.

But Beckett's signature moment came in the fourth.

A half-inning after Marlins rookie Miguel Cabrera was drilled in the left elbow by Zambrano, Beckett got the whole ballpark buzzing.

Beckett's first pitch in the fourth was a head-high heater to Sosa - tailing in toward him, too - that caused the slugger to duck and stumble backward. Sosa immediately sprang to his feet and took a couple of steps toward the mound, shouting and pointing his bat at Beckett.

Plate umpire Larry Poncino and Rodriguez, the Marlins catcher, quickly sealed off Sosa to prevent big trouble as a few Cubs rushed to the top step of the dugout.

Pudge patted Sosa on the back, trying to calm down his fellow All-Star while they stood several feet up the third-base line. While Rodriguez, Sosa and Poncino were sorting it out, Beckett calmly walked in from the mound and took a new ball from the umpire's bag.

When play resumed, Beckett threw a pair of 98 mph fastballs and eventually struck out Sosa looking at a changeup.

In late April, Sosa's batting helmet was cracked when he was beaned by Pittsburgh's Salomon Torres. Ever since, the Cubs have been especially sensitive to high-and-inside pitches to Sosa.

Fittingly, Beckett retired Sosa on a grounder for the final out.

Florida threatened in the third, loading the bases with two outs when Zambrano hit Cabrera, his buddy from back home in Venezuela, with a 96 mph fastball. The Marlins had not hit a grand slam this season, and still don't have one after Derrek Lee grounded out.

The Marlins also loaded the bases in the fourth, but Luis Castillo struck out to end the inning.