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Stark: Marlins in 6


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This isn't American Idol.

 

But that's exactly why postseason baseball is our greatest sporting reality show. You can't call up and vote on whom you'd like to see play in the World Series. You get what you get. You get the teams who found a way, not the teams who lost their way.

 

So this doesn't have to be the sorry-about-that World Series. This doesn't have to be a World Series in which we keep thinking about the teams that aren't there.

 

We're sorry if the Marlins haven't suffered as much pain and heartache as the Red Sox and Cubs. That's not their fault. We're sorry if the Yankees are in the World Series every stinking year (unless struck by lightning). That's not their fault.

 

This still looms as a fun and compelling World Series, matching everyone's favorite corporate behemoth versus a team that started the season with a lower payroll than the Reds. So here are the questions that should hang over this Series:

 

Have the Marlins turned into this year's Angels?

 

They've ridden the wild-card highway to the World Series. They foul off about a thousand pitches a game. Not even X-Box invents wilder games than the Marlins. No lead is safe against them. No ballpark scares them. No pitcher intimidates them. Their bizarre and sorry recent history no longer seems relevant.

 

 

"There's some magic in that team," says one scout. "They're on a roll. They're very athletic. And they're brimming with confidence."

 

Face it. The Marlins are the 2002 Angels, right down to the obligatory 20-year-old rookie (in this case Miguel Cabrera, not Francisco Rodriguez) who does something mind-warping every night. And lest we forget, it was those 2002 Angels who ousted last year's Yankees with a series of relentless, draining at-bats that turned the Yankees' pitching staff into the Tigers for one spooky week in October. (During which Yankees pitchers had an 8.21 ERA, and the Angels hit .376 against them).

 

Could that happen again? Well, the Marlins haven't lost to a left-handed starter since Aug. 11, and they'll see two of them (Andy Pettitte and David Wells) in this series. The Marlins have that team-of-destiny look. But playing the Yankees isn't the same as playing the Cubs or the Giants or the Phillies. "So they'll have to bring their 'A' game," says one American League scout. "They can't pull a '98 Padres. That team was on a roll, too -- until it got to New York."

 

Can the Marlins -- or anybody -- get to Mariano Rivera?

 

For two weeks now -- check that, for five months now -- the Marlins have been the masters of the insane, impossible comeback. But now they meet the man who wouldn't know a comeback from a fullback, Mr. Mariano Rivera.

 

 

Why even debate whether this man is the best postseason closer ever? He has the lowest postseason ERA (0.78) of any postseason pitcher ever. He has blown just two October saves in seven years (31 for 33) -- and 25 of them are saves of at least four outs, 12 of them saves of six outs. As the Red Sox could testify, there's no sign he's slipping, either. He's faced 41 baserunners in this postseason, and five have reached base.

 

Nevertheless, says one AL executive, the Marlins match up better than most teams against him "because they don't have left-handed hitters." Left-handers (.197) batted 94 points lower than right-handers (.283) off Rivera this year. But a Florida lineup that is overwhelmingly right-handed has actually hit Rivera well.

 

Believe it or not, Marlins who were on the NLCS roster have a .297 lifetime average against Rivera (11 for 37). And after Rivera's heroic 48-pitch, three-inning outing Thursday, he's probably limited to just an inning in Games 1 and 2 -- which creates three more outs that a shaky Yankees' bullpen would have to get. "One of the key guys in that Marlins clubhouse," says one scout, "is Jeff Conine because he's seen Rivera so much (and has a .333 career average -- 4 for 12 -- with a homer, double and five RBIs off him, to boot). I'm sure they'll go to him for insight."

 

Can the Marlins' running game disrupt the Yankees?

 

When you think back on last year's Yankees-Angels series, one of the most vivid memories is the sight of all those Angels baserunners taking extra bases on the Yankees' defense any old time they got inspired to. Well, the Marlins play that game even better than the Angels did, with a run-and-gun lineup that, aside from Mike Lowell and Conine, looks as if it popped right out of a time machine from 1983.

 

 

Wells (16 SB, only 5 CS) and Roger Clemens (20 for 28) were among the 10 easiest American League starters to steal on this season. And while Pettitte has one of the game's best pickoff moves, opposing base-stealers did go 13 for 14 against him this year. Among the starters, only Mike Mussina (9 SB, 10 CS) completely stopped the running game. And Joe Torre's two favorite set-up men lately, Jose Contreras (9 for 9) and Felix Heredia (6 for 7), can be run on just about at will.

 

"(Jorge) Posada has actually been throwing well," says one AL scout. "He just hasn't caught particularly well. So I think if the Marlins put pressure on the Yankees starters, they can definitely disrupt them. And they can run on their outfielders. Watch Bernie (Williams). Think about those center-field throwing arms Florida has faced in the postseason -- Bernie, (Kenny) Lofton and (Marquis) Grissom. None can throw at all. And the Marlins have really used that to their advantage."

 

Can the Marlins' starters contain the Yankees?

 

The bad news for the Marlins is, Josh Beckett can't pitch every game. And the rest of their rotation hasn't exactly Diamondbacked its way through October.

 

 

Brad Penny got demoted to the bullpen during the Cubs' series. Mark Redman has allowed 27 baserunners in 15⅔ postseason innings. Ditto Dontrelle Willis (19 baserunners in nine postseason innings). And Carl Pavano, though he pitched well Tuesday in his only postseason start, has a 7.71 career ERA against the Yankees, in two starts.

 

"Beckett is a big factor," says one AL scout, "because I love power guys against the Yankees. Those are the guys who can really stick it to that lineup. But who knows what you'll get from Penny? Pedro (Martinez) hit Karim Garcia in the back on purpose. Penny might hit him in the head trying to throw a sinker, down and away."

 

How important is the Yankees' home-field advantage?

 

Will Bud Selig's All Star Game marketing brainstorm come back to torture the Marlins in this World Series? Well, depends on how big a deal you think home-field advantage really is.

 

Of the six playoff series played so far this October, only one team with home-field advantage has survived to keep playing. But of course, that team was the Yankees (in both the ALDS and ALCS). And if you think that's a coincidence, we've got a bridge across the Bronx River we'd like to sell you.

 

As the Red Sox became the latest, greatest team to find out, spooky stuff happens at Yankee Stadium every October. The Red Sox were five outs from becoming the first team since 1926 to head into Yankee Stadium, trailing 3-2 in a best-of-seven series, and win Games 6 and 7. But in The Stadium, those last five outs feel like 50 outs.

 

In the eight Octobers in the Joe Torre era, the Yankees now have won 15 games -- yep, 15 -- in which they trailed with six outs to go, or fewer. They've done that three times just in the last 10 postseason games they've played in Yankee Stadium. And if there's a Game 7, that's exactly where it will be played, thanks to Bud, Hank Blalock and Eric Gagne.

 

No road team has won a World Series Game 7 in ANY team's park since the 1979 We Are Family Pirates won Games 6 and 7 in Baltimore. But we know how these games turn out in The Bronx.

 

"I know the Marlins won in Wrigley Field," says one scout. "But this isn't Wrigley Field. This is a little different. And these guys haven't experienced that -- not this time of year."

 

So the pressure is on the Marlins, big-time, to, at worst, take a 3-games-to-2 lead back to New York. And no team has closed out a postseason series on the Yankees in New York since 1981. But there's something about these Marlins. So we have this mysterious feeling that's exactly what they'll do.

 

Prediction

 

Marlins in 6

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Ahhh...I think the key to this series is the Yankees pitching. I am not intimidated by them at all. Stark is right, their bullpen is shaky, but they are looking down on us Marlins right now, thinking they can get us out. Let them be overconfident - they will join the vanquished with that same look of shock that Cubs fans now enjoy.

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