Subscribe for 17¢ / day

Associated Press

MIAMI - Ivan Rodriguez caught the throw from left field on one hop, stepped in front of the plate and braced for a collision.

Bearing down on the Florida catcher was J.T. Snow, son of a former NFL receiver. The ball, the game and a berth in the NL championship series were in Rodriguez's hands - and he refused to let them slip away.

The 10-time All-Star's helmet and mask went flying, but he made the tag for the final out, and the Marlins beat Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants 7-6 Saturday, clinching their best-of-five division series 3-1.

"It was a very tough play," Rodriguez said on the field as teammates celebrated. "In that situation I'm just going to grab that ball in my glove. I don't want to let that ball go out of my glove."

He spoke while still clutching the ball.

With a typically dramatic victory, the wild-card Marlins moved into the NL championship series to face either the Chicago Cubs or Atlanta.

"This is a start," Rodriguez said. "We have a great team, and I think we can go all the way."

Dontrelle Willis and the Marlins blew a 5-1 advantage before rookie Miguel Cabrera helped them regain the lead in the eighth with an RBI single.

Rodriguez scored the go-ahead run, jarring the ball loose from catcher Yorvit Torrealba. When it scooted away, another run scored.

But the defending NL champion Giants weren't done. They scored once in the ninth against closer Ugueth Urbina and had runners at first and second with two out when Jeffrey Hammonds singled to left.

A charging Jeff Conine fielded the ball on one bounce and threw to Rodriguez. Snow bowled over the catcher nicknamed "Pudge," but Rodriguez held the ball.

He rose and was tackled again by a jubilant Urbina as Marlins mobbed each other, the scene accompanied by the roar of 65,464 fans, a record for a division series game.

During Rodriguez's 12 seasons with the Texas Rangers, they went 1-9 in playoff games, all against the New York Yankees. At 31, he found a limited market as a free agent last winter and settled for a one-year, $10 million contract with the Marlins.

The unlikely pairing is now a postseason sensation.

"This is what I've wanted for a long time," Rodriguez said. "And there's nothing better than me getting the last out."

Rodriguez also picked Snow off first base in the sixth with the game tied. He drove in all four Marlins runs and threw out a runner in their 11-inning victory Friday.

"The guy does it all," said Giants reliever Felix Rodriguez (no relation), who gave up Florida's two runs in the eighth. "Pudge won both games by himself. If they don't have Pudge Rodriguez, they probably don't have a chance. He's the best catcher in baseball, and he made all the plays today."

It was a triumph tough to imagine when 72-year-old manager Jack McKeon's team trailed 1-0 in the series and 4-1 in the fifth inning of Game 2 - or when Florida was 19-29 in May. But the resilient Marlins will start the NLCS on the road Tuesday.

"They're just exciting guys to be around," McKeon said. "They've got that fire in their eyes. They're never going to quit. You're going to have to beat us."

With the victory, the Marlins saved themselves a long trip to San Francisco for a decisive Game 5 Sunday. They've won all four postseason series in franchise history, including the 1997 World Series.

The NL West champion Giants, the first team to clinch a division title this year, were the first to be eliminated.

"I'm proud of my guys," manager Felipe Alou said. "They didn't give up when they were trailing by four runs. They didn't give up when they were trailing by two runs in the ninth inning. They made it tough for the Marlins. It wasn't meant to be."

The loss ended the latest bid for that elusive World Series ring by Bonds, who went 0-for-2 with a sacrifice fly and an intentional walk.

"See y'all in spring training," Bonds said in the somber Giants clubhouse.

After hitting a record eight home runs in the postseason last year, Bonds batted .222 in the series (2-for-9) with no homers, one double, two RBIs, three runs and eight walks, six intentional.

"I'm surely relieved," McKeon said. "You're managing against one guy. You know every time he comes to bat he can beat you. I'll be damned if I was going to let him beat me."

Carl Pavano pitched one scoreless inning for his second win in the series and Urbina got a save. Felix Rodriguez took the loss.

With two out and runners on first and second in the Florida eighth, Cabrera broke a 5-all tie with a single. It was his fourth hit, tying a playoff record for a rookie.

Right fielder Jose Cruz Jr., the goat Friday for the Giants, made a wide throw home as Rodriguez scored from second base. Derrek Lee scored on Torrealba's error.

Cabrera also doubled twice and had a two-run single in the fourth. McKeon, managing in the playoffs for the first time, opted to start the youngster instead of All-Star third baseman Mike Lowell, still not 100 percent after breaking his left hand in August.

"Jack has the Midas touch," Lee said. "Everything he does turns to gold."

Copyright © 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.