Baseball-Almanac.com's Divisional Series section
2003 National League Divisional Series:
Florida Marlins (3), San
Francisco Giants (1)
After years of less-than-stellar ratings, record audiences finally tuned in to the Major League Baseball postseason, making it the most-watched playoffs ever on cable. Fans also flocked to the ballparks setting a new attendance mark with over 1,858,979 tickets sold. Many attributed this renewed interest to the playoff's storybook backdrop that featured two of baseball's most beloved underdogs, the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs. Both teams had surprised the experts by making the post season and each continued to shock their opponents by battling back in their respective leagues time and time again. After decades of disappointment, thousands of long-suffering fans from both ball clubs reveled in the possibility that the curse of both "The Bambino" and "The Goat" might finally come to an end.
The Florida Marlins represented the "sleeper team of 2003" and had managed to sneak undetected under everyone's "radar" after falling ten games under .500 on May 22. Amazingly, the moderately popular Florida franchise was making its second run at the National League Championship in only it's tenth year of existence. After replacing skipper Jeff Torborg with Jack McKeon, the "Fish" posted a 75-49 record (.605) becoming only the ninth team in history to come from 10 or more games below .500 to reach the postseason. At 72 years old, McKeon was the oldest manager in the major leagues and third oldest in history proving that age didn't matter when it came to coaching in the big leagues. The Marlins clubhouse however, was anything but "old" as most of the team's brightest talents were young enough to be their skipper's grandchild. The pitching rotation for instance was greener than the outfield grass, with youngsters such as Dontrelle Willis (21) and Game 1 starter Josh Beckett (23). Regardless, Florida appeared solid on both sides of the ball and boasted several league leaders like centerfielder and leadoff hitter Juan Pierre, who played in all 162 games and led the majors with 65 stolen bases. Another huge advantage for the Marlins was behind the plate due to the recent acquisition of perhaps the greatest catcher in all of baseball. After averaging just 103 games per year (and landing on the disabled list four times in his final 3 seasons as a Texas Ranger), Ivan Rodriguez had much to prove after passing up a 3-year offer from the Baltimore Orioles to sign a one-year, $10 million "mercenary" deal with Florida. "Pudge" as he was known, had a rough May, but later caught fire in June and was a leading force in the Marlins' amazing march to the playoffs.
The National League Champion San Francisco Giants returned for yet another Divisional Series after suffering a heartbreaking loss to the surprising Anaheim Angels in the 2002 Fall Classic. Eager for a second chance, the Giants led their division wire-to-wire, becoming only the 9th team in Major League history to lead a division (or league) from start to finish. The "statistical backdrop" behind this particular Series was extra special as both teams had a stormy history together during both the regular and post-season. First, San Francisco had been 5-1 against the Marlins during the season, sweeping 3 games in Florida (in May) before the Marlins changed managers. Then they won 2 of 3 at Pacific Bell Park (in August), improving their all-time record there against the Marlins to 34-14. (They also had the NL's best home record in 2003 at 57-24). And finally there was the "revenge factor" as it was the Marlins who had swept the Giants in the '97 Divisional Series on their way to their first World Series title. Although Barry Bonds still remained the most intimidating bat in all of baseball, it was teammate Marquis Grissom (batting in front of Bonds) who was generating the most press. Grissom who had become one of six players in major league history to have 2,000 hits, 200 homers and 400 stolen bases, joining Roberto Alomar, Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Paul Molitor and Joe Morgan, remained the biggest "wild card" in San Francisco's line-up. Although he hit .300 with 20 homers and 79 RBIs, his second-half production was down, batting .287 with only 6 homers and 32 RBIs. He also hit .176 (3-for-17) against the Marlins this season and many experts predicted that his ability (or inability) against Florida would be a major determining factor. Bonds on the other hand was no longer in question after proving last postseason that he could perform in the playoffs hitting .356 with 8 homers, 16 RBIs and 27 walks. In the end, most experts agreed that the '03 NLDS would simply come down to a battle of inches between the Marlins' "Prodigal Pitchers" and the Giants' "Bayside Bombers".
Despite the heavily favored Florida rotation, the opener clearly belonged to Giants right-hander Jason Schmidt, who gave San Francisco the dominating start it needed, holding the Marlins to just 3-hits, striking out 5 and walking none for a complete Game 1 shutout. San Francisco also finished with three hits, but the difference came in the 4th-inning when they used two walks, Edgardo Alfonzo's bunt single and a throwing error by rookie third baseman Miguel Cabrera to break through for the game's first run. The following day however, Juan Pierre and his wild-card Marlins turned the momentum heading home for Games 3 and 4. Juan Encarnacion homered and Pierre wound up with a bases-loaded double on a misplay by Jose Cruz Jr. in a decisive 3-run sixth as Florida rallied to beat a sloppy San Francisco team 9-5. Most importantly, Florida kept Bonds from doing major damage. Rookie "phenom" Dontrelle Willis, the Marlins' probable Game 4 starter, did his part by relieving in the 8th and retiring Bonds on a foul out.
Game 3 appeared much more even until Ivan Rodriguez made the Giants pay for squandered opportunities and a critical defensive error. The sold out crowd at Pro Player Stadium erupted like a volcano after the "million dollar" catcher came up bigger than his paycheck with a 2-out, 2-strike, 2-run single in the 11th for the 4-3 victory. The 4th (and final) game turned out to be one of the most dramatic of the playoffs after the Marlins blew a 5-1 advantage before rookie Miguel Cabrera helped them regain the lead in the 8th with a crucial, game-turning RBI single. Rodriguez then scored the go-ahead run (and another), after jarring the ball loose from catcher Yorvit Torrealba. However, defending NL champion Giants weren't done yet and scored once in the 9th off closer Ugueth Urbina and had runners at first and second with 2 out when Jeffrey Hammonds singled to left. A charging Jeff Conine fielded the ball on one bounce and threw a one-hop laser just wide of the plate to Rodriguez, the hero of the 11-inning victory. Rodriguez quickly moved in front of the plate and somehow managed to apply the tag as J.T. Snow bowled him over, trying unsuccessfully to dislodge the ball. The result was an ESPN Sports Center "Play of the Week" and a thrilling 7-6 Series clincher.
2003 was perhaps one of the greatest and worst years in the history of Chicago Cubs baseball. Though never out of contention, winning four of five vs. the Cardinals in September spurred the Cubs to bigger things. They went on to handle their business against the National League Central, going 15-7 for the remainder of the month to move past the Houston Astros for their first division crown since 1989. The turning point for the team came back in July, when they obtained veteran center fielder and leadoff man Kenny Lofton and third baseman Aramis Ramirez from the Pittsburgh Pirates. That filled two holes in the lineup and rescued the Cubs from a midseason lull. Chicago had also experienced the midseason distraction of a media circus that followed one of the most disturbing baseball moments in recent memory. The entire baseball world was shocked after one of its most beloved athletes Sammy Sosa was ejected in the first inning of a Chicago Cubs versus Tampa Bay Devil Rays game after umpires found cork in his shattered bat. Sosa, who had recently joined the 500 home run club and gained national prominence in 1998 during his home-run battle with Mark McGwire, apologized to fans, his teammates and the Commissioner of Baseball. Stating that the corked bat had been strictly used for batting practice and mistakenly taken to the plate, Sosa received a seven-game suspension following an appeal. Sosa's other bats, which had been confiscated by security personnel and turned over to Major League Baseball, showed no signs of tampering. Still, many doubted the integrity of Sammy's previous accomplishments and it would be some time before he would be back in the fan's favor.
Luckily the Cubs were not completely dependant on hitting. With Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement, Chicago boasted one of the most dangerous starting rotations in all of baseball. They also boasted one of the least intimidating bullpens. Although closer Joe Borowski finished 14-for-14 in save chances down the stretch, the Cubs relievers combined for a miserable 4.16 ERA on the season, and setup men Mike Remlinger, Kyle Farnsworth and Antonio Alfonseca had not been consistent at all.
Speaking of inconsistent, the Atlanta Braves were anything but and were returning for their 9th consecutive Divisional Playoff Series. A poor showing in September (14-12) against contenders threatened the Braves' postseason home-field advantage before they rebounded to win 6 of their last 10 games. Otherwise, it was the same old story, as the Braves rolled to their 12th division title in a row. Clearly the favorite on paper, the Braves featured a league-best .284-team batting average with 235 homers and 907 combined runs. Javy Lopez, hit 42 (43 total) homers for a single-season record for a catcher, and the most potent outfield in baseball of Chipper Jones (27 HRs, 106 RBI), Andruw Jones (36 HRs, 116 RBI) and Gary Sheffield (39 HRs, 132 RBI) combined to form a 1-2-3 punch that few rotations could handle. On the mound, Atlanta remained their usual threat despite the departures of Kevin Millwood and Tom Glavine. Offseason acquisitions Russ Ortiz (21-7) and Mike Hampton (14-8) filled the holes nicely, with both having postseason experience. History was also on their side as they had swept the Cubs in the 1998 Division Series and were 4-2 vs. Chicago this season. In experience, the math is easy: 12 consecutive playoff berths vs. 4 total for the Cubs since World War II.
Game 1 was sobering for the Braves as Kerry Wood delivered a strong message that Chicago's arms could stop Atlanta's bats, throwing a brilliant, 2-hitter into the 8th-inning and slamming a vital double to beat Atlanta with his bat AND his heat, 4-2. The win was historic as the Cubs had not won a postseason game since 1989 and had not won on the road since Claude Passeau pitched a one-hitter to beat the Detroit Tigers in Game 3 of 1945 World Series. Although Braves closer John Smoltz failed to save Atlanta's Game 2 victory over Chicago, he did manage to earn the win with help from teammate Mark DeRosa. The "11th hour" substitute second baseman pulled of a "save" of his own with a clutch, 2-out, 2-run double to the left-center field wall in the bottom of the 8th inning, giving the Braves a 5-3 victory that evened the National League first-round series at 1-1. Game 3 was all about Mark Prior, who had the Wrigley Field nation leaning forward ready to explode, sensing a moment the Chicago Cubs have not seen in 95 years. An example of the student outdoing the master, Prior mowed down the Braves on 2 hits, beating Greg Maddux 3-1 and giving Chicago a 2-1 lead in this best-of-five series. Like the Opener, it was also the first complete game by a Cubs pitcher in the postseason since Passeau in the '45 Classic. As a testament to the power of pitching, Chicago had only scored only 10 runs so far in the series but were still on the verge of winning it. They had also gone 6-for-30 with runners in scoring position and hadn't hit anything longer than a double.
The Braves managed to comeback in the 4th outing thanks to a revival sparked by the re-ignited bat of Chipper Jones, who hit 2-run homers from each side of the plate. After holding back the Cubs for a critical 6-4 triumph in front of a standing-room only Wrigley Field crowd that came ready to celebrate, the Tribe sent the Chicago faithful home shaking their heads in disbelief. Patience would be rewarded however in Game 5 as Chicago's Dusty Baker, the same manager with a different team, sent Atlanta packing for the second year in a row with a majestic 5-1 victory. Once again, Kerry Wood earned his stripes winning the clincher in dominating fashion by allowing just 1 run on 5 hits in 8 innings while fanning 7 and walking 2. At the plate, Alex Gonzalez had a solo homer in the 2nd-inning and Aramis Ramirez knocked a 2-run shot in the 6th, both going over the center-field wall (in the deepest part of Turner Field) off Braves left-hander Mike Hampton. Despite ending on the road, thousands of Cubs fans were on hand to cheer their beloved team. The estimated crowd of 54,357 was a Braves franchise record, eclipsing the turnout of 53,775 that watched Hank Aaron break Babe Ruth's home run record in 1974.
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