10/07/2003 7:20 PM ET
Ugly duckling Marlins?
Florida has best record since May, but Cubs steal show
CHICAGO -- In the hours leading up to tonight's Game 1 opener of the National League Championship Series, Marlins manager Jack McKeon attended a mass at a nearby church. When asked before this afternoon's batting practice session if he had been recognized there, McKeon replied, "No, not too many people recognize me in Chicago. I can go through Chicago without too many problems."
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
That seemed to be a recurring theme before Carlos Zambrano's first pitch to Juan Pierre at jam-packed Wrigley Field. The Cubs are getting most of the attention, with many people already dreaming about a possible Cubs-Red Sox or Cubs-Yankees World Series for obvious historical reasons. One reporter today even asked McKeon if he felt like the Marlins, despite having baseball's best record since mid-May, are an "ugly duckling."
"Everybody has their own favorites," McKeon said. "Some want the Cubs to win, some want the Marlins to win. We're rooting for the Marlins. Somebody here wants the Marlins to win."
Miami Herald columnist Dan Le Batard wrote today that "nobody outside South Florida wants the Marlins to win." Both clubs have similarities, and both got here through those intense September pennant-race battles, but most observers are giving Chicago the edge, regardless of sentiment. Mark Prior, who will start Game 2, was asked about being in the unique position of suddenly playing a favorite.
"Well, to be perfectly honest, I don't know if anybody is a real favorite in this series," said Prior, who did not face Florida in July because of his injury just before the All-Star break. "That's not taking any confidence away from the way I feel about our teammates. I think Florida has a great team, and I felt that way since we played them back in July.
"They have a lot of different weapons. But the main thing that they do, they just play unbelievable defense. And I don't think it's a secret that the extra outs helped in the series, and we're not asking to get those opportunities on this team.
"We're going to have to be on top of our game, and not give them extra outs, and execute offensively, do the things we have to do to be successful," continued Prior. "So they're a great ballclub. I'm not saying anything that I don't think is already known."
Marlins third-base coach Ozzie Guillen spent plenty of time around Chicago during his White Sox days, and he has heard the overwhelming attention that has been placed on Florida's opponent -- not just here, but nationally, even internationally.
"I like it that way," Guillen told the Chicago Tribune. "Nobody thought we had a chance against San Francisco. Nobody thought we had a chance of even making the playoffs. I have a nice group of kids. They have learned how to play together and now they know what it takes to be here. Our pitching staff and defense have been here all year long, and they believe in themselves. That's all they have to worry about."
These teams met only this season in a home-and-home series that was sandwiched around the All-Star break, with the Cubs winning two of three at each park. They were each embroiled in intense September races, with Florida surviving as the Wild Card and Chicago taking the NL Central ahead of Houston. The Marlins lost the opening game of their NL Division Series against the Giants but won the next three, and the Cubs advanced with Sunday's Game 5 victory in Atlanta.
Here's a first-pitch tidbit to chew on: Florida led the Majors with 72 victories at night. Yes, it has an advantage in that category over a Cubs team that plays more day games than anyone, so turn to this stat instead: Florida's .600 night winning percentage was third-best behind only San Francisco (.670) and the Yankees (.653).
Florida's Josh Beckett and Chicago's Zambrano, each of whom started and had a no-decision in an NLDS game, will be on the mound in this opener. Game 2 will pair Florida's Brad Penny against Prior.
Mark Newman is a writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.