Cubs move closer to World Series

Posted: Sunday, October 12, 2003

MIAMI Aramis Ramirez lingered around home plate, hoping his long drive would stay true instead of taking another cruel Cubs twist. When the ball landed fair, it was clear which way the fates had turned.

After nearly a century of futility, fortune finally seems to be in their favor.

Ramirez hit the first grand slam in Cubs' postseason history, added another homer and drove in six runs as Chicago moved within one win of its first World Series since 1945 by trouncing the Florida Marlins 8-3 Saturday night in the NL championship series.

''You've got to close it out,'' Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. ''It's not over yet, big time.''

Matt Clement pitched his team to a three games to one edge, getting a standing ovation from thousands of Cubs fans when he left in the eighth inning. Marlins fans were still mostly in shock, having seen rookie Dontrelle Willis get shelled.

Ramirez's slam came in the first inning, and the Cubs led 7-0 by the fourth.

''I know they haven't won in 95 years,'' said Ramirez, acquired from Pittsburgh on July 22. ''I was pretty excited when I hit that.''

The Cubs can wrap it up Sunday at Pro Player Stadium, when Carlos Zambrano faces Josh Beckett in Game 5.

Then again, don't count on anyone in the Chicago clubhouse to celebrate too early. After all, these are the Cubs, who haven't won the championship since 1908.

Needing only one more win to make the World Series in 1984, they blew a 2-0 lead to San Diego in the best-of-five NLCS. Marlins manager Jack McKeon was the Padres' general manager that year, by the way.

So would he give these Marlins a little history lesson Sunday?

''I might do it,'' he said.

Only three times in LCS play and five times in the World Series have clubs overcome a 3-1 deficit in a best-of-seven series. For the wild-card Marlins to do it, they'll have to win games started by Cubs aces Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.

''I think if you go back through the record book, there are a lot of teams that have come back,'' McKeon said. ''You can't give up.''

A night after Ramirez had to scramble at third base to record the final out for a 5-4 win in 11 innings, the Cubs cruised.

Willis, traded for Clement right before the 2002 season started, walked the bases loaded with one out in the first inning. Sweat was beading on his face on a humid night as the 21-year-old All-Star rookie faced Ramirez for the first time in his career.

Ramirez launched a 2-2 pitch deep down the left-field line, and hung around to watch it land inside the foul pole. Cubs fans among the LCS-record crowd of 65,829 roared as Ramirez rounded the bases.

Ramirez added an RBI single in the third as the Cubs chased Willis, who walked a career-high five. Even though the Marlins have trailed in all eight of their postseason games this year, no amount of resiliency could overcome such a deficit.

As if for emphasis, Ramirez lined another home run in the seventh. His six RBIs set a Cubs record for the postseason.

''I wouldn't want to count us out yet,'' Willis said. ''We've climbed out of tougher holes than this.''

Clement kept the Cubs ahead, giving up an RBI single to pinch-hitter Todd Hollandsworth and an RBI double by Ivan Rodriguez.

Chicago wound up sending Florida to its first two-game losing streak at home since July 19-20, when the Cubs did it.

Kenny Lofton kept pestering the Marlins, this time drawing a walk to lead off the game. The vocal Cubs fans cheered loudly as Lofton trotted to first and Florida fans tried to shout them down.

Willis struck out Mark Grudzielanek, then the real problems started. Willis walked Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou on four pitches each, loading the bases.

By then, Marlins third baseman Mike Lowell, Rodriguez and pitching coach Wayne Rosenthal had all made separate trips to the mound hoping to settle down the rookie.

As Rick Helling heated up in a hurry in the bullpen, Willis regained his touch at least for a fleeting instant. He got two quick strikes on Ramirez and there was a foul ball that landed in the stands just beyond Lowell's reach.

Ramirez then lifted a high drive to left that clearly had enough distance. The only question was fair or foul, and Ramirez hung around outside the batter's box to get a better view.

There wasn't any doubt as the ball came down at least 10 feet inside the pole. Willis did a quick twirl on the mound while the Cubs' runners whirled around the bases.

Willis went on to retire the next six hitters before the Cubs finished him off in the third.

Sosa walked again, Alou singled and Ramirez grounded an RBI single through the right side. A walk to Eric Karros loaded the bases, and that was it.

Willis shook his head, chomped his gum and tossed the ball up and down as McKeon came out to get him. Willis flipped the ball underhanded to his manager and jogged off the mound, pounding his glove as he reached the dugout.

Helling got off to a rough start, too, when Alex Gonzalez hit an RBI single on the first pitch.

When the inning ended, Rodriguez walked into the tunnel leading from the dugout to the clubhouse and put his left arm around Willis' neck, giving him a pep talk.

Alou made it 7-0 with an RBI single in the fourth.

Notes: Lofton has scored six first-inning runs in nine postseason games this year. ... The Cubs have totaled 11 runs in the first inning during the NLCS. ... Rodriguez has a hit in all eight of Florida's postseason games.

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