Cubs nearly end wait, making short work of Willis to roll, 8-3

First W. Series since 1945 is win away

Ramirez hits slam off Marlins ace in 1st

League Championship Series

October 12, 2003|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

MIAMI - It has been 58 years since the Chicago Cubs appeared in the World Series, but it may not be much longer now.

Wait until next year?

The Cubs may not have to wait until they get back to Wrigley Field to wrap up the National League Championship Series after making surprisingly short work of Florida Marlins phenom Dontrelle Willis in Game 4 last night.

Third baseman Aramis Ramirez hit a grand slam in the first inning and the Cubs knocked Willis out of the game in the third on the way to a surprisingly easy 8-3 victory at Pro Player Stadium that left them one victory away from the Fall Classic.

Ramirez would homer again and tie a playoff record with six RBIs to make life very comfortable for Cubs starter Matt Clement, who pitched 7 2/3 innings and gave up just three runs on five hits to earn his first career postseason victory.

The only major highlight for the Marlins was the sellout crowd of 65,829, which was the biggest in the history of the League Championship Series.

"It's not over yet, big time," said Cubs manager Dusty Baker. "They won the first one and we won the next three. You've got to go out there and just win it. They're not going to give it to you. They're not going to give up, that's for sure. You can't think about it until it's over, until you cross the finish line."

Right-hander Carlos Zambrano will take the mound today against Marlins right-hander Josh Beckett in a rematch of Game 1 starters. The Marlins have to win just to earn the right to travel back to Wrigley Field to face Cubs ace Mark Prior in Game 6 and, just maybe, Kerry Wood in Game 7.

It's possible. The Marlins need only look back at the first playoff round to find a team - the Boston Red Sox - that won three straight games to stave off elimination. They also won three straight against the San Francisco Giants after losing Game 1 of the Division Series. But optimism had to be in short supply after one of the best young pitchers in the game wilted under the pressure of a must-win situation.

"There's no question it's a seven-game series and this is a big challenge," said Marlins manager Jack McKeon. "But I think if you go back to the record books, there are a lot of clubs that come back from three games. We're going to be battling tomorrow. We have a good pitcher going tomorrow night. Our problem has been our starting pitchers. We haven't been getting mileage out of them."

Willis walked three of the first four batters he faced and gave up a mammoth shot to Ramirez that just barely stayed inside the foul pole in left field. The rookie left-hander settled down to retire six straight batters after that, but allowed four straight batters to reach base in the third and that was that.

He may end up being the National League Rookie of the Year, but he probably has made his last start of the 2003 season - and it won't be a fond memory.

"That's been his problem since the All-Star Game: bases on balls and getting behind hitters and having to come in. That's his big problem, staying behind hitters," McKeon said.

"When he was 9-1 [in the first half], he was staying out in front and challenging hitters. After the All-Star break, he became a little different type pitcher."

Still, it was a shocking meltdown for a young player who had no trouble keeping his cool during a pressure-packed wild-card race. McKeon was saying just before the game how unusual it was to see a player come up from the minor leagues and display such poise.

Willis didn't appear to be intimidated. He just lacked command of his fastball and got himself into a situation in the first inning where one pitch could all but decide the game.

Ramirez became only the seventh player to hit a grand slam in the NLCS, something he couldn't even have imagined when he was grinding out the first half of the regular season with the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates.

It hasn't been a perfect postseason, until now. Ramirez came into the game with just two hits in his first 13 NLCS at-bats and was batting just .226 in eight postseason games. His first home run not only gave the Cubs a commanding early lead, it also was the 15th homer of the series, which set an NLCS record that he improved upon in the seventh inning.

"It's exciting," Ramirez said, "but you don't want to get too excited. You've got a pretty good club over there, so you've got to get it done before you start celebrating."

One of the other erstwhile Pirates, leadoff man Kenny Lofton, continued to create havoc for Marlins pitchers. He opened the game with a walk and also walked and scored in the fourth. He already had reached base nine times in the first three games and had McKeon shaking his head even before last night's performance.

"You'd like to stop their leadoff guy," he said, "but you've got to remember, this guy is 30-some years old, has a world of experience in the postseason, he's a very intelligent player, and a very good player."

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