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October 22, 2003

Lucky and good: New York 6, Florida 1
by Larry Mahnken

Sure, everyone was hoping for the Red Sox and Cubs to make it to the World Series, guaranteeing that one of those star-crossed franchises would win their first World Series since the days when Presidents were elected based on issues. Everyone was probably pulling for those two teams to win just so the rest of us wouldn't have to hear their fans whining anymore, but it's probably for the best that they didn't, as most of those fans probably don't understand that nine decades of whining kind of limits the amount of gloating we're willing to put up with when they finally do win.

What everyone's desire for the Sox/Cubs series caused us to miss was the real Cinderella story, the Florida Marlins. In late May, they were 10 games under .500, and their ace pitcher had been knocked out of action thanks to the wacky antics of Jeff Torborg, whose parents were apparently killed by a young pitcher. But they finally go rid of Torborg, and replaced him with Jack McKeon, former manager of the Royals, A's, Reds, Padres and Knickerbockers, and in late May, their season began to turn around.

Sure, they really had no business being in the playoffs, coming in the backdoor that was reserved for teams that were actually good. But they finished with the best record of any team that didn't actually win it's division--and a better record than two teams that did--and knocked off the defending NL Champions in four games, and then came back from a 3-1 deficit, and a 3-0 deficit with 5 outs to go in Game 6 to defeat the Cubs, and advance to play the Yankees in the World Series.

But sometimes, the carriage turns back into a pumpkin, the mice get eaten by a cat, and Cinderella gets her head lopped off by a light saber. Sure, the Series is only 2-1, but the Yankees have almost completely manhandled the Marlins in the first three games. Florida has scored only five runs in the first three games, and collected a grand total of 3 extra-base hits, all doubles, all last night, and one of which would have been an out against any team with a half-decent defense. The Yankees had most of the breaks go their way last night: a bad stop at third base on Pudge Rodriguez by Ozzie Guillen, and a foolish attempt to score by Pudge later that inning, a terrible call for ball four on a 3-2 count with the bases loaded and two outs for the Yankees, and a 39-minute rain delay that may have prevented Florida's ace from pitching a complete game. But the Yankees didn't just win because they were lucky, they won because the Fish weren't lucky.

People have made a connection between this series and the 1960 World Series, where the Pirates won 4 close games from the Yankees, the last on Bill Mazeroski's HR, and lost 3 blowouts. History, of course, is not cyclical, nor is history cyclical, and history is not cyclical, either, but that series, the most obvious case of how a short series can go to an inferior team, shows that the Marlins can win this series, even though the Yankees are a superior team on paper. They have to win the close games.

Except the Yankees are better equipped to win the close games than the Marlins are. Sure, Florida utilizes one-run strategies better than New York does, but while that helps them score in more of their opportunities, it also makes them likely score fewer runs overall, putting the outcome of the game even more in the hands of their pitchers.

Aside from Josh Beckett, none of Florida's starters can match the Yankees' starters, particularly considering the quality of lineup they have to face. Sometimes, like Saturday, a mediocre starter can give you a strong outing, and put the game in the hands of your bullpen, but the Yankees are stronger there, too. Florida lacks a strong situational lefty, forcing McKeon to send Dontrelle Willis out to the pen to try and do the job. Willis pitched strong in Game One, but last night walked two and gave up a single in the crucial eighth inning. If the Marlins do get the lead late in the game, they turn to Braden Looper and Ugueth Urbina, neither of whom is especially reliable. The Yankees, on the other hand, have Jeff Nelson, who is almost useless versus lefty batters, but still dominates righties. And if you get the game to the eighth with the lead, Mariano is about as close to a sure thing as you can get from a pitcher, having failed only twice in his long postseason career.

Even if the breaks had gone Florida's way last night, had there been no rain, had Pudge scored from second and Posada struck out, they still might have lost. I just can't see Florida scoring a bunch of runs off of the Yankees, and in most cases, the Marlins are going to have to go through their extremely shaky middle relief to get to Looper and Urbina, something the Yankees' hitters should be feasting on before this series is over--the feast may have already begun last night.

If the Marlins had won last night, I might see them as having a chance to win this series, but I still think the Yankees would have won. Now, they have to rely on two hittable righties and a lefty who doesn't scare the Yankees to do what they couldn't do tonight, and win two of three just to get the series back into Josh Beckett's hands. I just can't see that happening. Really, I think they'd be lucky just to get this back to New York.