CHICAGO - Even in the land where baseball futility has become a religion, it doesn't get any stranger than this.
The Chicago Cubs were cruising to their first World Series since 1945 when one of those long-suffering Cubs fans reached out of the stands and snatched it away from them.
Maybe it wasn't meant to be so easy. Right-handed pitcher Mark Prior was dominating the Florida Marlins the way he has dominated everyone for the past three months, until fate stepped in and paved the way for an eight-run eighth inning and an 8-3 Marlins victory that pushed the National League Championship Series to a climactic Game 7 tonight at Wrigley Field.
It wasn't really fate. It was some guy in a sweat shirt and a Cubs cap who reached out and made like Jeffrey Maier, knocking a foul by Luis Castillo away from Cubs outfielder Moises Alou in the eighth inning.
Left-field umpire Mike Everitt signaled no play because the ball was above the railing and Alou had to leap to make the catch. It wasn't a routine play, but the replay showed that he almost certainly would have caught the ball for the second out of the inning.
Prior still held a three-run lead at the time and did not look like he was going to give it up. Instead, he appeared flustered after the play, throwing a wild pitch to walk Castillo and giving up an RBI single to Ivan Rodriguez.
Can you say meltdown?
Rookie Miguel Cabrera followed with a bouncer that should have been at least the second out, but shortstop Alex Gonzalez dropped it for an error. Derrek Lee followed with a two-run double to tie the score and it just got worse from there. The final blow, a three-run triple by backup shortstop Mike Mordecai, ended all hope of a Cubs victory on this night.
One minute, crowds were gathering around the stadium for the street celebration to end all street celebrations. The next minute, the old ballpark was enveloped in stunned silence.
Can you say Cubs curse?
"It doesn't have anything to do with any curse," said Cubs manager Dusty Baker. "There was the fan interference, and then an error by Gonzo that was very uncharacteristic. He doesn't miss those. It doesn't have anything to do with that. History had nothing to do with that game."
How do the Cubs get up after this? Prior carried a three-hitter into the eighth inning and there was almost no sign of life in the Marlins' dugout. There was no reason to believe a one-out single by Juan Pierre was anything more than an isolated incident. If Castillo's ball had been caught, it seems highly unlikely that the inning would have gone anywhere.
"Moises said that he had it timed perfectly," Baker said. "He was going to catch the ball and then it was gone."
Alou threw his glove to the ground in disgust after Everitt signaled no interference, but he was surprisingly forgiving in his assessment of the unidentified fan after the game.
"In a way, I can't blame him," Alou said, "because as a fan your first instinct is to want to catch the ball and get a souvenir. I just hope he doesn't regret that for the rest of his life."
The play was reminiscent of the 1996 playoffs in which Maier, a 12-year-old Yankees fan, reached over the right-field railing to snatch a fly ball out of the glove of Orioles outfielder Tony Tarasco. The difference then was that the fly ball by Derek Jeter was fair and umpire Rich Garcia ruled it - incorrectly - a home run instead of fan interference.
This time, the ball was foul and it was a judgment call. If the ball is in the stands, it is fair game for the souvenir hunters. If it was inside the wall, it can be called interference.
"There was no fan interference," said Marlins manager Jack McKeon. "If the ball is in the stands the fans have a right to go for it. ... I really don't think that was a big turning point."
The Cubs had to talk tough afterward. What else could they do? They still have pitching ace Kerry Wood set to go in Game 7, but the momentum and the chemistry of the series has shifted decidedly.
The Marlins will send left-hander Mark Redman to the mound to try and complete an unlikely comeback that began with the impressive two-hit performance of young Josh Beckett in Game 5.
"We've got Kerry Wood going," Baker said. "It's tough to beat both those guys [Prior and Wood]. We're back to even. Anybody who thinks that this is over, they aren't real Cubs fans. It's not over by a long shot. We've got Kerry Wood going tomorrow and as far as I'm concerned, we're in pretty good shape."
Though it isn't apparent by the score, last night's game was a tense affair that featured a gutsy performance by fill-in Marlins starter Carl Pavano that appeared to be going to waste.
The Cubs scored a run in the first inning, which should have been no surprise to the Marlins. Kenny Lofton led off with his 16th hit of the postseason and came around to score on an opposite-field double by Sammy Sosa. The only game in the series that the Cubs did not score in the first inning was against Beckett on Sunday.