Zambrano ready for potential clincher
MIAMI -- In big games, Marlins right-hander Josh Beckett wants the ball.
No game has ever been bigger than what 23-year-old Beckett is about to encounter. In his second Major League season, the Spring, Texas, native has the tall order of trying to keep the Marlins' season alive.
The Cubs toppled the Marlins 8-3 on Saturday night, taking a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven NLCS.
More than 65,000 are expected to witness Game 5 at Pro Player Stadium.
"Josh knows what he has got to do," Marlins pitching coach Wayne Rosenthal said. "To tell him, just adds to it. He's on his five days right now, in a normal routine. We hope he is just fine to give us six or seven innings so we can turn it over to the bullpen."
Getting off to a fast start is essential if the Marlins hope to send the series back to Chicago for a sixth game.
In all four games, the Cubs scored in the first inning. Dontrelle Willis surrendered a grand slam to Aramis Ramirez in the opening frame Saturday, giving the Cubs a 4-0 lead.
"Anybody who [says] they are not nervous is lying," pitching coach Wayne Rosenthal said. "It's either nerves or everybody is amped up. They are either hyper or strong. Sometimes when you are strong, you are trying to hard to hit that spot."
The Cubs have outscored the Marlins, 11-0, in the first inning.
"We've given up runs in the first inning and I'm shocked by it," Rosenthal said. "Hopefully, Josh can do something about it."
The stakes have never been higher, and an emotionally-charged Beckett is trying to downplay the importance of a start where the outcome is obvious.
"It's a big game," said Beckett, making his third playoff start in his two-year Major League career. "This is the NLCS. I think every game is pretty big. Game 1 was a big game. I don't think that bothers me too much. I just have to go out and throw pitches. That's the bottom line."
Beckett was the Marlins' Opening Day starter this season. And he pitched Game 1 of the Division Series against the Giants, as well as the first game of the NLCS at Chicago.
His outing at Wrigley Field in Game 1 was a mixed bag of early nerves and bad breaks, followed by a nice four-inning stretch, before he gave up a two-run homer to Alex Gonzalez in the sixth.
Despite giving up four runs in the first inning (six in 6 1/3 innings), the Marlins were somewhat encouraged by the performance.
Beckett was victimized by some bad luck in the four-run first. After he walked Kenny Lofton on four pitches, Mark Grudzielanek's RBI triple gave the Cubs the early lead. But on the hard-liner to center, Juan Pierre slipped going after a ball he would most likely have caught.
Instead of two outs and one on, the Cubs had one run in and Grudzielanek on third. Moises Alou made it 3-0 with a two-run homer to left. Before the inning ended, Alex Gonzalez added a run-scoring double.
After that, Beckett didn't allow a hit until Grudzielanek's single in the fifth. An inning later, the right-hander retired two straight before Randall Simon doubled and Gonzalez homered.
Marlins manager Jack McKeon is a bit concerned with inconsistent performances by his starters. The 72-year-old manager says inexperience may be a factor.
"It's the playoffs and sometimes young guys are trying too hard," McKeon said. "They are in the spotlight and don't stay within themselves."
Beckett finished on a high, going 3-1 with a 2.08 ERA in his last five regular season starts. His was strong in his first playoff game, giving up one run on two hits with nine strikeouts in seven innings against the Giants in Game 1 of the Division Series.
However, he lost that day, 2-0, because Jason Schmidt tossed a three-hit shutout.
"He's been pitching well," Rosenthal said. "Everything has been going good. He gave up four runs in the first of Game 1. But after that, he shut them down. He picked it up."
Pierre's slip on the Grudzielanek liner helped create an unfortunate first inning.
Beckett downplays Pierre's slip because the drive was hit hard.
"It's still a bullet," Beckett says. "It was a hard hit ball. That comes down to executing pitches. I wasn't executing pitches."
Beckett has faced the Cubs at Pro Player Stadium once in his career. That happened to be his Major League debut when he allowed one hit and three walks in six innings in 2001.
What's impressed the Marlins is how Beckett has matured as a pitcher in the second half. Facing the Cubs at spacious Pro Player Stadium is different than being at hitter-friendly Wrigley Field.
"What's encouraging to me, from a pitching standpoint, is the mechanics have been the same," Rosenthal said. "He's making adjustments. The stuff is there. Now he's got to just make it consistent. When he is not throwing a curveball all the time, he is challenging guys a little better. There are times during games when he goes 0-2 to 3-2. I think overall the consistency is better because his delivery is intact."
Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.