MIAMI - There may be an epidemic of Cubs Fever spreading throughout the baseball world, but the Florida Marlins aren't ready to succumb to it just yet.
The other Cinderella team in the National League Championship Series rose up yesterday and proclaimed itself still very much alive in the National League Championship Series, scoring a fairly resounding, 4-0 victory in Game 5 to send the best-of-seven series back to Wrigley Field.
OK, so they're not exactly the picture of playoff health. The Marlins kept their hopes flickering before 65,279 at Pro Player Stadium, but they still have to deal with the small matter of facing Chicago Cubs phenom Mark Prior in Game 6 tomorrow night and, if they are fortunate enough to go any further than that, overpowering right-hander Kerry Wood in Game 7.
But that's a story for a different day. The theme for Game 4 was fairly basic - keep breathing - and Marlins starter Josh Beckett delivered one of the best pitching performances in playoff history with a complete-game, two-hit shutout that smothered any notion the Cubs would celebrate in South Florida.
Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano traded scoreless innings with Beckett until the bottom of the fifth, when third baseman Mike Lowell launched a two-out, two-run home run that would have been enough to fire up the charter jet to Chicago.
The Marlins also got window-dressing homers from Ivan Rodriguez and former Oriole Jeff Conine in the late innings to create a comfort zone for Beckett, who became only the fourth pitcher in LCS history to give up two hits or fewer in a complete-game effort.
Cincinnati Reds pitcher Ross Grimsley (1972), New York Mets starter Jon Matlack (1973) and San Francisco Giants pitcher Dave Dravecky (1987) are the others. The only pitcher in either league to pitch a one-hitter in the playoffs is Yankees ace Roger Clemens, against the Seattle Mariners in 2000.
"This was a complete performance," said Cubs manager Dusty Baker. "This guy is one of the finest young pitchers in the game."
Beckett threw just 115 pitches and struck out 11 batters. The Cubs never advanced a runner past first base and didn't get their first hit until Alex Gonzalez lined a soft single into center field in the fifth inning.
"I felt it right away," Beckett said. "I felt I had good stuff and felt my mechanics coming together. It's a little easier when you have a good bullpen [warmup session]. So I think it all starts there. And I felt like I threw a good bullpen."
It would have been an entirely uneventful performance if Beckett had not thrown a pitch in the fourth inning that knocked Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa to the ground and precipitated a brief verbal exchange.
Nothing came of it, but it's clear that everyone is in a heightened state of inside-pitch alert after the nasty confrontation between the Red Sox and Yankees on Saturday at Fenway Park.
"I thought he overreacted, to be honest with you," Beckett said. "I thought it was really stupid that we had to go through that."
The Cubs had calmed down by the time they reached their clubhouse after the game. Sosa downplayed the incident and his teammates were already focused on tomorrow night's Game 6 matchup between Prior and Marlins right-hander Carl Pavano.
If that sounds like a mismatch, the Cubs know better than to take either Prior or the Marlins for granted.
"If we had to pick two guys off our staff for this, you'd pick Prior and Wood," said veteran first baseman Eric Karros, "but that doesn't guarantee anything.
"I said yesterday that this thing is a long way from being over. Florida is a team that doesn't quit. We've still got our work cut out for us."
The Marlins can only hope that the momentum has shifted enough to give them a chance to compete against two pitchers who are a combined 4-0 in the postseason.
"We played our usual game tonight," said Florida manager Jack McKeon. "And, once again, it all starts with pitching. We got the kind of pitching we hoped we'd get in all four games, but unfortunately didn't. Beckett did an outstanding job. This is the kind of ballclub we are. You get good pitching and you're going to be hard to beat."
Funny, but Cubs manager Dusty Baker was saying largely the same thing after the game.
"Momentum in baseball really isn't that big a deal, I don't think, as it is in other sports," Baker said, "because the control is basically in the hands of the pitcher. You can have all the momentum you want and that next day's pitcher goes out and throws against you like Beckett did today, it's in the hands of the pitcher."
The remaining pitching matchups clearly favor the Cubs, who also have the home-field advantage. Karros has a point about there being no guarantees, but the Cubs appear to have a lot going for them as they attempt to nail down their first World Series appearance since 1945.
"Yeah, we feel confident with those guys on the mound," Baker said. "Especially after a loss. Mark Prior's record after the loss has been outstanding, plus he's performed a lot better on the sixth day than on the fifth day, which is why we didn't start him today."
Marlins fans have to be wondering why it took so long for McKeon to get Lowell back in the lineup, even though rookie Miguel Cabrera played so well in his place.
Lowell missed September with a broken hand, but has been available throughout the postseason. He hit a huge home run in the NLCS opener and appears to have his swing in midseason form, but did not make his first NLCS start until Game 4.
"There was never a moment when I had to get Mike Lowell back in the lineup," McKeon said. "We were running pretty good. Mike is a hell of a player. No question about it. And you're always looking for angles to get him back in there, but most of the guys were doing the job, so it was tough to take somebody out."