Baseball-Almanac.com's Divisional Series section
2003 American League Divisional Series:
New York Yankees (3),
Minnesota Twins (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 New York Yankees entered their Divisional Series anxious to "save face" for their disappointing loss to the Anaheim Angles in 2002. Statistics were in their favor as the last time the Yankees had been eliminated in the ALDS was in 1997, and they came back the following year to go 11-2 in the playoffs en route to another World Series title. Home field advantage was also clearly in their favor as there had been "no place like home" in October. During the 1990's "The House That Ruth Built" had emerged as another "player" while distracting inexperienced teams with its Hall of Fame ghosts, Monument Park, pinstriped uniforms and the tradition of 26 championships. New York had completed their regular season 101-61 and won their sixth consecutive division title with baseball's best road record. Their opponents, the Minnesota Twins, were baseball's surprise story in 2002 (after rumors of team contraction) and had remained at the top of their game for the second consecutive season. They boasted baseball's best record after the All-Star break (digging out from an eight-game losing streak in July that dropped them into third place, 7 1/2 games out) and finished their season with a team-record 13-game home winning streak. Minnesota also boasted a home field or "home dome" advantage of their own with the indoor "Metrodome" which was the exact opposite of the more traditional Yankee Stadium. The indoor turf surface and bright tiled ceiling provided an unfamiliar "feel" to the game that the Yankees were not comfortable with.
Game 1 tipped the scales in Twin's favor as the franchise was able to finally end a two-year, 13-game losing streak to the Yankees. Although Minnesota did not "dominate" the 3-1 event, they did play better baseball and had better overall pitching, defense and timely hitting. Standouts Shannon Stewart who made a spectacular ninth-inning catch while crashing into the left-field fence and Cristian Guzman who poured it on from first to third on a single to left while sliding around a tag, then scored on a sacrifice fly led the charge against the newly christened "Evil Empire". New York remained unshaken though as during its run of nine consecutive postseason appearances, it had won all three first-round series after dropping the opener. Yankees lefty Andy Pettitte came up huge in Game 2 with a 4-1, series-tying gem. Not only did the win even the score, but it prevented his team from having to save their season by trying to win two games in the Metrodome, where the Twins were 11-3 in postseason play. Pettitte struck out 10 batters (his postseason career high) in seven innings and surrendered a single homerun to Torii Hunter. After a sloppy Game 1 loss in which they went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position, the Yankee batters made their presence known by breaking open the game with three runs in the seventh. As the series shifted to the Twin Cities, Japanese phenom Hideki Matsui came up big at the plate with a two-run homer in the second inning that made the difference (3-1) in Game 4. A 41-year-old right-hander named Roger Clemens followed the "rookie's" lead by putting on a vintage performance while keeping the Twins totally out of sync and unable to start the aggressive running game that helped them win the opener. Minnesota got close after A.J. Pierzynski's leadoff homer in the third and had a runner on with two outs for Hunter in the fourth. But Hunter struck out for his 13th time in 23 hitless career at-bats against "The Rocket". Game 4 clearly belonged to New York after they exploded for six runs in the fourth inning off Twins starter Johan Santana, knocking him out of the game with Nick Johnson's two-run double, their fourth double of the inning. Alfonso Soriano maintained the Yankees' momentum after taking reliever Juan Rincon with a two-run single to boost the lead to 6-0. In the end, every Yankees starter contributed at least one hit to the team's 13-hit offense that led to the 8-1, Series clinching victory. It was the 9th time, since baseball went to the division format and extended playoffs in 1969, that the Yankees were headed to the Championship Series. Their only loss to date had been against the Kansas City Royals in 1980.
On the other side, the post season regular Oakland Athletics were once again, hoping to make it to that American League Championship that had continued to evade them. The "Bay-Area Bombers" had gone 0-for-3 in the Division Series for the past three years while going five games on each occasion. Unlike the offensive fire-power that had become an Oakland standard, this team relied on solid starting and relief pitching. Standouts Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Ted Lilly had combined to go 22-12 with a 3.01 ERA in the second half of the season, and were backed up by relievers Ricardo Rincon (2.01 ERA in 22 1/3 innings), Chad Bradford (1.78 ERA in 30 1/3 innings) and Keith Foulke (19 saves, 1.24 ERA). The Boston Red Sox were coming off one of their best seasons in recent memory and had won at least 90 games in consecutive seasons for the fourth time in their storied 103-year history. However, most experts did not favor them against the A's as they had lost eight consecutive playoff games against Oakland (1990 and 1988), with their last victory coming on October 7th, 1975. Like Oakland, Boston had made it to the post season with defense. As a result, the pressure to perform fell squarely on the shoulders of starters Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe and Tim Wakefield. All three combined to make an awesome rotation and when the trio had pitched at least seven innings during the regular season, the Red Sox went 41-12. When they went less than seven, the team was a disappointing 29-30. Clearly this series was going to be between "the men on the mound".
Oakland retained their "Never Say Die" attitude in Game 1 and managed to squeeze past the Red Sox with one of the most stunning plays of the post season. It came when Ramon Hernandez (acting on his own) bunted in the 12th inning to beat Boston 5-4. At 4 hours, 37 minutes, the game was the longest in Oakland's postseason history, and it ended in the most improbable way: with the hard-hitting A's executing a surprise play to eke out the winning run. It was also an improbable win due to Boston's heavy-hitting lineup that tagged Oakland's Tim Hudson for 10 hits and 3 runs. Unfortunately, their 4-3 lead fell in the last of the ninth as the Boston bullpen (Byung-Hyun Kim and Alan Embree) dropped the ball and inevitably - the game. Things continued to go against the Red Sox in Game 2 (ironically the 25th anniversary of the New York Yankees' one-game playoff victory) as Hernandez once again ignited the A's five-run second with a run-scoring single to right. On the mound, Barry Zito held the high-powered Boston lineup to just one run in seven innings while recording nine strikeouts and a 5-1 victory. Despite images of Bucky Dent plastering their psyche, the Red Sox managed to push aside their demons and comeback 3-1 (in Game 3) thanks to pinch-hitter Trot Nixon, who hit a two-run homer in the 11th. The win not only put Boston back in the race, but it also showed Oakland that "bad luck" can be contagious. Although they had managed just seven hits, Boston still managed to force a fourth outing thanks to four unusual Oakland errors including three in the second inning. The A's also had two runners thrown out at the plate in a bizarre sixth inning that sent the umpires to their rule books and A's manager Ken Macha into a fury. Unbelievably, Game 4 also came down to a single pitch, this time to David Ortiz, whose two-run, eighth-inning double gave the Red Sox a 5-4 win at Fenway Park. Amazingly, it was the second consecutive day Boston, down 0-2 in the series, had saved their season in their final at-bat. Many members of the "Red Sox Nation" felt that "divine intervention" was in effect and that their team was destined to go the distance. However, things did not appear to "divine" in Game 5 as centerfielder Johnny Damon was taken off the field in an ambulance after a stomach-turning head-to-head collision with second baseman Damian Jackson in the seventh. Damon, who was chasing a Jermaine Dye blooper, was rendered unconscious on impact and suffered facial damage and a severe concussion. Despite the loss of their teammate, Boston managed to press on. Leading 4-3 in the ninth, Derek Lowe sealed the Divisional title after coming out of the bullpen and striking out pinch-hitters Adam Melhuse and Terrence Long. The dramatic win was Boston's fourth playoff series victory since its last World Series title in 1918 and the fourth consecutive postseason Game 5 loss for Oakland. As a result the Red Sox would go on to meet they're hated rivals, the Yankees, in the American League Championship Series, with a chance to spit in the eye of the "Curse of the Bambino".
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