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Marlins show they belong

MIAMI -- Grady Little would have stayed with Carl Pavano.

But what would have been the fun of that? Had Florida manager Jack McKeon stayed with his starter in the ninth inning of Game 4 Wednesday night, we might have missed all the excitement.

We might not have seen the Yankees stage yet another dramatic World Series rally. We might not have seen Derek Jeter not score after a 10th inning double (he must have been busy fighting Lex Luthor). We might not have seen Florida reliever Braden Looper pitch his way out of a bases-loaded jam in the 11th. We might not have seen the game stretch into 12 innings and a whole new day.

And we almost certainly wouldn't have seen Florida shortstop Alex Gonzalez step up to the plate with an .094 postseason batting average and drive a home run just inside the left field foul pole to win the game.

If Gonzalez caught you by surprise with his home run, you haven't been paying close enough attention this month. A game-winnner by someone with five hits in his other 53 postseason at-bats? A walkoff home run by someone hitting 100 points below the Mendoza Line? That's nothing compared to what we've seen over the past few weeks. Heck, a fan didn't even reach out and pull the line drive over the fence and Don Zimmer didn't try tackling Gonzalez before he could cross home plate.

Are the standards slipping, or what?

Still, it was quite a game. It had Roger Clemens walking off the mound for possibly the last time and receiving a standing ovation -- from the opposing fans and players. It had the Yankees relying on Jeff Weaver, who hadn't thrown a pitch in four weeks. It had the 13th walkoff home run in World Series history.

Of course, it looked as if it just might end relatively easily when McKeon took the ball from Pavano and handed it and a 3-1 lead to Ugueth Urbina to begin the ninth inning.

The wrong move? Maybe. I don't like turning a two-run lead over to Urbina when my starting pitcher has retired 11 consecutive batters and 15 of the previous 16. But I really don't like turning over the game to him with a runner on base because I stayed with my starter too long by letting him begin the ninth inning after throwing 115 pitches under World Series pressure.

As McKeon said, in that situation, "You're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't.''

Frankly, it would have been so much easier a decision for McKeon if only he had been smart enough to have Mariano Rivera in his bullpen.

"We had watched Carl closely,'' McKeon said. "I think he's completed one or two games. Most of the time, he's been seven or eight innings. We have a guy that can close, and he's done an excellent job. He didn't do much tonight.''

No, he didn't. Urbina came in and he retired Jason Giambi on a fly ball for the first out of the inning.

Then Bernie Williams singled.

And Hideki Matsui walked.

And pinch-hitter Ruben Sierra tripled down the right-field line to tie the game and put the go-ahead run on third base.

Now, admit it. You thought the game was over right there, didn't you? You thought Sierra was going to score and Rivera was going to come in and the Yankees were going to win it just as they always do in October, right? And why not? We've seen all this more times than the episode where the castaways almost get off the island.

"You see it so many times,'' Florida first baseman Derrek Lee said. "It seems about every year they're in the postseason and they're pulling off some miracle comeback at the end of the game. But they're professionals and they never panic and they never give up.

"We're like that now, too.''

That's the thing. The Marlins have come back from so many deficits and rallied so many times this postseason, that all of a sudden you start looking at them as the team that's somehow always going to win in the end.

Let's see. They were 10 games under .500 in late May and in last place in mid June ... and still reached the postseason. They lost the first game of the Division Series to the Giants and fell behind in Game 2 ... and still won the series. They trailed the Cubs three games to one in the NLCS, trailed Mark Prior by three runs with five outs to go in Game 6 and trailed Kerry Wood by two runs in Game 7 ... and still won the National League pennant.

Then there was Game 4 on Wednesday. They faced Clemens, perhaps the best pitcher of our generation making his last career start (yeah, right). They countered with Pavano, who is 11 games under .500 for his career and best known for allowing Mark McGwire's 70th home run in 1998. They had as many hits in the final 11 innings as they had in the very first.

And they still won. In the sort of situation that the Yankees absolutely always win, the Marlins won instead.

"In that ninth inning, you have to think about the way they always come back,'' Florida reliever Chad Fox said. "That's not doubting ourselves, but that's just how they always come back. That's why they're the Yankees. That's why they're here every year. They don't go away easy.

"But I think we proved tonight that we're not going to go away easy, either.''

So, Sierra didn't score in the ninth to give the Yankees the lead. And Rivera didn't come into the game in the bottom of the inning. And Jeter didn't score in the 10th after his two-out double. And Rivera didn't come into the game in the bottom of the inning. And the Yankees didn't score in the 11th when they had the bases loaded with one out and Looper pitching the inning of his career. And Rivera didn't come into the game in the bottom of the inning.

And then Gonzalez stepped up and drilled a pitch from Jeff Weaver into the night for the first 12th-inning, game-winning homer since Carlton Fisk danced his way into World Series history.

"You can't give up on people," Fox said. "Hopefully, this will give him the lift he needs. You can't take away what he's done for us defensively at shortstop."

And so now the series is tied even though the Marlins have been outscored 17-9. And Game 5 is Thursday with David Wells (200 career wins) facing Brad Penny (40 career wins). And the only thing we can be sure of is that you better stay tuned until the very last pitch, because you never know with these Fish.

"My bedtime has gone from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m.,'' Fox said. "I get home from the game and everyone is in bed and by the time I wind down and look at the clock, it's 3:58. I fall asleep pretty easily because you're just so physically, mentally and emotionally done that your body just sort of gives out.

"But this is the opportunity of a lifetime. This is the World Series.''

And after four games, the Marlins have proven they belong here just as much as the Yankees.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.