Their rotation is depleted by injury and illness, they're hitting only .177 and they're facing a team familiar with October comebacks.
All that, and still the Florida Marlins are just one win away from the World Series.Livan Hernandez, a 22-year-old rookie pitching solely because manager Jim Leyland had no one else, put them in position Sunday by beating Greg Maddux and the Atlanta Braves 2-1 with one of the most remarkable performances in postseason history.
Hernandez set an NL championship series record with 15 strikeouts, pitching a three-hitter that gave the Marlins a 3-2 lead to take back to Atlanta.
"I'd like to say I expected this," Leyland said. "But I don't think there's a person in this room, in the stands or in the world that expected this."
Hernandez had never pitched a complete game in 57 pro starts and had never struck out more than eight in the majors. He was helped by plate umpire Eric Gregg's wide strike zone, as was Maddux, but helped himself even more with his poise, focus and command.
It was not until a called strike three to Fred McGriff - the pitch appeared high and wide - that Hernandez let loose with any emotion. In his first start since Sept. 27, he won for the second time in the series.
Pitching because of Alex Fernandez's torn rotator cuff and Kevin Brown's viral infection, Hernandez broke the NLCS record of 14 strikeouts shared by Mike Scott and John Candelaria, and tied the LCS mark set Saturday by Baltimore's Mike Mussina at Cleve-land.
"During the game, you can't think about that," Hernandez said through an interpreter. "After the game, people can tell you what it is you did."
The last out prompted a big celebration in the middle of the diamond, with Florida players rush-ing from the bench and bullpen to join in. Fireworks exploded overhead, mascot Billy the Marlin was on the mound waving a banner and the crowd of 51,982 went crazy.
Jeff Conine, the lone starter left from Florida's first game in 1993, hit a go-ahead single in the seventh inning that moved the 5-season-old Marlins within one win of becoming the fastest team to reach the World Series.
The loss left the two-time NL champion Braves in familiar territory. Atlanta rallied to win the final three games of the 1996 NLCS, including the last two at home, to overtake St. Louis in seven games.
"This team never gives up," Atlanta's Ryan Klesko said. "Even if we were down 3-0, we wouldn't give up. They still have to beat us one more time."
In fact, a few days ago Klesko reiterated that many Braves thought the Cardinals celebrated too much last October after taking a 3-1 lead. Atlanta came back to win the final three games by a combined score of 32-1.
Leyland is well aware of Atlanta's playoff comebacks. The Braves overcame a 3-2 deficit to beat Leyland's Pittsburgh team in the 1991 NLCS, and beat Leyland's Pirates in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS.
Game 6 will be Tuesday night at Turner Field as Tom Glavine opposes Brown.
Hernandez, who saw action in Game 3 on Friday night with 1-2/3 innings of scoreless relief, retired 17 of the last 18 batters. He walked two.
Maddux, who lost for the second time in the series, struck out nine in seven innings. He gave up four hits.
The 25 strikeouts by both teams was a record for a league championship series game. Of the 25, eight were called by Gregg.
"My strike zone has been consistent on both sides for 20 years," Gregg said.
Chipper Jones, however, later questioned a lot of what he saw. He struck out twice against Her-nan-dez.
"I know I swung at a couple of pitches that were at least a foot outside," he said. "I turned around and asked if they were strikes and Gregg said, `Yes.' I couldn't help but chuckle. I'm so mad right now, I can't see straight."
Maddux, the victim of five unearned runs in the opener, lost again because of a ball that was not caught, albeit it involved a difficult play.
Bobby Bonilla opened the seventh with a drive to deep right that snow-coned in Michael Tucker's glove as he crashed into the wall. The ball popped loose, as did one of Tucker's contact lenses, and Bonilla wound up with a double for his third hit.
There was an eight-minute delay while Tucker and others looked for the elusive lens. Tucker eventually left the game and, when it resumed, Conine singled up the middle on Maddux's first pitch, stopping an 0-for-13 slide in the series.
"I've been here since Day 1," Conine said. "This was really something today."
Hernandez worked around a leadoff triple by Kenny Lofton in the first, and the Marlins scored in the bottom half on Bonilla's single.
Braves vs. Marlins
NLCS Game 6, Tuesday
Start: 6:07 MDT. TV: NBC (Ch. 5). Radio: KSL-1160.
Pitching matchup: Florida (Brown 16-8) at Atlanta (Glavine 14-7).
Series: Marlins lead 3-2.