By Scott Brown
MIAMI - J.T. Snow drilled Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez and Ugueth Urbina piled on. This wasn't a football play that transpired inside a packed pro stadium, but rather the final play of a National League Division Series that provided just about everything, including a surprise victory.
Yes, the Florida Marlins are just four wins away from returning to the World Series for the first time since 1997.
Rodriguez tagged out Snow at the plate with two outs in the top of the ninth inning to preserve a 7-6 win over the San Francisco Giants Saturday, the second day the Marlins had won a thrilling NLDS game on the final play.
When he saw Rodriguez had hung onto the ball after a strong throw from left fielder Jeff Conine, Urbina, who almost blew the game, jumped on the Marlins catcher. That started the celebration that carried over to the Florida clubhouse, where players puffed on cigars and doused teammates with beer and champagne.
The Marlins will play the winner of the Cubs-Braves series in the NL Championship Series.
"It's unbelievable," Florida center fielder Juan Pierre said after the Marlins beat the favored Giants 3-1 in the best-of-five series. "You think you could never top a game (Friday) and then you go out and do that."
Third baseman Miguel Cabrera had four hits and four RBI for Florida, while Rodriguez had a pair of hits, an RBI and several standout defensive plays.
None were bigger than the tag on Snow.
The Marlins gave up an early 5-1 lead, but got a two-run single from Cabrera in the eighth to break a 5-5 tie, then got Conine-to-Rodriguez in the ninth.
Not quite Marino-to-Duper, but good enough for the 65,464 fans who comprised the largest crowd to watch a baseball game at Pro Player that wasn't a World Series contest.
"I said many times, I've managed a number of years and this is the finest bunch of guys collectively that I've ever been associated with," said 72-year-old Marlins skipper Jack McKeon.
McKeon started Cabrera over Mike Lowell at third base, and the 20-year-old tied a major league record for hits by a rookie in a postseason game while turning in a pair of sparkling defensive plays.
"He became a superstar today," said first baseman Derrek Lee, who singled in a run and scored one.
Cabrera had been 0 for 8 in the first two games in San Francisco before giving way to Lowell on Friday.
"Jack could probably start (pitcher) Mark Redman at second base and he'd get two hits," Lowell said, laughing.
Cabrera's two-run single in the bottom of the eighth gave Florida apparent control of the game. But after Friday's wild affair (the Marlins won 4-3 in 11 innings), it shouldn't have come as any surprise that the Giants got two quick hits and a run off Urbina.
Two outs later, with the tying run on second and the go-ahead on first, Jeffrey Hammonds blooped a single into left field.
Snow, whose speed can make it seem like he is running in three feet of snow, had just rounded third when Conine fielded the ball and came up throwing.
"I was like, 'All right, Pudge. Hang on,' " Conine said.
Rodriguez did, despite taking a shot from Snow, allowing the Marlins to hang on.
If they had squandered Saturday's game, the Marlins would have had to go back to San Francisco. And the odds of them winning a deciding fifth game might have almost been as long as their cross-country flight.
The Giants had not lost consecutive games at Pac Bell Park since the beginning of June. The Marlins would also have had to face Jason Schmidt, who three-hit them in the first game of the series.
Plus, the missed opportunities would have dominated their thoughts on the flight to San Francisco.
The Marlins built an early four-run lead, though it could have been much more, and Dontrelle Willis looked like the dominating pitcher he had been in the first half of the season before tiring in the sixth.
After the Giants tied it at five in the sixth, the Marlins loaded the bases with no outs in the bottom of the inning, but could not score.
The Marlins left 11 runners on base for the game.
None of that, however, mattered in the jubilant Marlins locker room after the game.
San Francisco manager Felipe Alou may be second-guessed for not starting Schmidt with the Giants facing elimination. Schmidt said he could have pitched on four days' rest, but Alou opted for rookie Jerome Williams, who the Marlins chased in the third inning.
"I'm not disappointed. I'm looking forward to next year," said Alou, who managed in his first postseason. "We're going to have another good ball club next year. It just wasn't meant to be."
True, if fate isn't smiling down on the Marlins this year, it appears to at least be wearing teal.
"We're not going to try to figure it out," Pierre said. "We're just going to enjoy the ride."
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