Wild ride ends with playoff berth for Marlins

MIAMI (AP) -- With rainy weather, apathetic fans, unsettled
ownership and losing records, the Florida Marlins have provided
comic relief in recent seasons.

Look who's laughing now.

The surprising Marlins beat the New York Mets 4-3 Friday night
to clinch their first playoff berth since winning the 1997 World
Series. They'll face the NL West champion Giants in a best-of-5
series beginning Tuesday in San Francisco.

"We're happy to get in, but this is just the beginning," said
Derrek Lee, who drove in two runs. "We want to go deep in the

The Marlins trailed Philadelphia in the wild-card race last
Saturday, but pulled away with five consecutive wins. At 90-70,
they're 20 games above .500 for the first time since '97.

Closer Ugueth Urbina began hopping in celebration as center
fielder Juan Pierre settled under a flyball for the final out.
Jubilant Marlins then piled on top of each other near the mound,
and soon they were pouring champagne on each other.

"We always went to the playoffs in high school," said
23-year-old pitcher Josh Beckett, Florida's probable starter in the
opening playoff game. "This time I actually get to drink beer."

The victory put 72-year-old Jack McKeon in the postseason as a
manager for the first time. Florida is 74-48 (.607) since he took
over May 11.

"We're all going to smoke cigars tonight," said McKeon, who
has several boxes of them in his office. "This is the most fun
I've ever had with any team. I love these guys."

Pierre, a catalyst all season, filled that role again in the
clinching victory. The leadoff man stole two bases to set a team
record with 64, singled three times to reach a career high with 203
hits and played a part in Florida's first three runs.

Carl Pavano (12-13), the No. 5 starter on a strong pitching
staff, limited New York to six hits and three runs in 7 1/3
innings. He retired 11 in a row during one stretch.

The Marlins' rapidly expanding bandwagon attracted 33,215 fans,
the largest crowd of the week and the fourth-largest of the season
in Miami.

"If they keep coming, we're going to keep winning," All-Star
third baseman Mike Lowell pledged. Florida has won 15 of its past
17 home games.

There was a roar when Jeff Conine, a regular on the 1997 team,
hit his fifth homer since rejoining Florida on Aug. 31. Lee
triggered more cheers by driving in two runs with a double and a

Chad Fox struck out Timo Perez with the tying run at second to
end the eighth. Urbina retired Roger Cedeno with runners at first
and third to end the game and earn his sixth save in eight chances
since Florida acquired him in July.

"I'm proud of the kids and happy for the fans," said owner
Jeffrey Loria, who bought the troubled franchise in February 2002.
"We made believers out of the doubters. This is just the beginning
of a wonderful road for us."

With the victory, Florida eliminated the Houston Astros and
Chicago Cubs, still vying for the NL Central title, from wild-card

Few foresaw a playoff berth for the Marlins, whose only other
winning season came six years ago.

They won despite a modest payroll of $50 million, far less than
the season-opening $117 million payroll of the last-place Mets. The
Marlins won despite losing their best pitcher, A.J. Burnett, to an
elbow injury in April, and Lowell to a hand injury during the peak
of the playoff race. And they won despite a slow start that
prompted a managerial change, with McKeon replacing Jeff Torborg.

The Mets tried to postpone any celebration with a comeback in
the final two innings. In the eighth Cedeno walked, Joe McEwing
singled and Mike Piazza singled home a run to make it 4-2. Fox
replaced Pavano, and Tony Clark hit a sacrifice fly that Juan
Encarnacion caught near the wall in right-center. Perez then struck

Urbina walked two in the ninth and threw a wild pitch before
retiring Cedeno to end the game. The Mets sat on their bench and
watched as the Marlins' celebration began.

"A game is a game," Mets manager Art Howe said. "We just
hoped to make it a little tougher on them than we did."

Among the Marlins' attributes is a knack of coming from behind,
which they did against Aaron Heilman (2-7).

New York scored in the first, but Florida answered in the bottom
of the inning on Lee's two-out RBI double.

The Marlins went ahead to stay in the third. Pavano led off with
a double, took third on Pierre's infield hit and scored on a
sacrifice fly by Ivan Rodriguez.

Pierre walked to start the fifth, advanced on a groundout and
scored on Lee's two-out single for a 3-1 lead. Conine hit his third
home run of the week to start the sixth and chase Heilman, who
allowed four runs and eight hits in five-plus innings.

New York scored in the first when Piazza singled with two out
and came home on Clark's double.

Game notes
With his 63rd stolen base in the first inning, Pierre broke
the team record he and Luis Castillo shared. Pierre added another
in the sixth. ... At 9-4 in Miami, Pavano leads the Marlins in home
victories. ... Heilman dropped to 1-3 on the road with an ERA of