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The Narrative Of The 2003 MLB Season

The 2003 MLB season was an exciting one across divisions and included historic heartbreaks for long-suffering franchises in both League Championship Series rounds. And when it ended, an unlikely champion—the Florida Marlins—stood on top of the heap.

Florida used lineup balance to find success. They had a balanced rotation, with four starters—including Rookie of the Year Dontrelle Willis—combining to win 54 games. The everyday lineup had .300 hitters in Luis Castillo and Juan Pierre setting the table. The corner infielders, Derek Lee at first base, and Mike Lowell at third, each hit 30-plus home runs.

The Marlins took a while to find their groove, and in the meantime, the Atlanta Braves continued their dominance of the NL East. The Braves had lost Hall of Fame starter Tom Glavine to free agency and recast themselves as a team that could hit.

Gary Sheffield hit 39 homers and racked up 132 RBIs, placing third in the MVP voting. Javy Lopez had terrific power himself–the catcher hit 43 bombs and was also top-5 in the MVP vote. Andruw Jones had 36 homers and 116 ribbies, while second baseman Marcus Giles hit .316. The Braves scored more runs than anyone in the National League. And while the pitching did slip, Atlanta still had Greg Maddux, they got 21 wins from Russ Ortiz, and they pitched well enough to win.

The Braves took control of the NL East in the early part of summer, and this was never a competitive race. What this division did have was several teams in the hunt for what was then a single wild-card berth. In addition to the Marlins, the Philadelphia Phillies got in the mix. The Phils had first baseman Jim Thome posting monster power numbers, with 47 homers and 131 RBIs. Bobby Abreu hit 20 dingers and drove in 101 runs. The Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals) also hung in the wild-card race until the early part of September.

In the National League Central, there were three teams vying for both the division title and the wild-card spot. The Chicago Cubs had a good crop of young pitchers. Mark Prior was the best of the group in 2003, with 18 wins and a 2.43 ERA. Carlos Zambrano and Kerry Wood each had ERAs in the low 3s. Sammy Sosa was still putting up big numbers, with 40 homers and 103 RBIs.

The Cubbies were challenged by both the Houston Astros and St. Louis Cardinals. Houston got a vintage year from Hall of Fame first baseman Jeff Bagwell, while third baseman Morgan Ensberg emerged as a key contributor on the other side of the infield. The Cards had the league’s second best offense. Edgar Renteria was one reason, batting .330. Jim Edmonds was another, with his 39 home runs. But the biggest reason was a rising young star named Albert Pujols. With 43 homers, 124 RBIs, and a .359 batting average that led the league, Pujols finished second in the MVP voting.

Chicago, Houston, and St. Louis all jousted, each holding the lead at various points during the season. When the stretch drive came after Labor Day, they were all within 1 ½ games of each other, and only narrowly off the pace in the wild-card fight.

The award winners in the National League came out of the West. San Francisco, coming off a heartbreaking World Series loss in 2002, got back into the race behind another MVP season from Barry Bonds. With an astonishing .520 on-base percentage and almost as stunning .749 slugging percentage, Bonds kept an otherwise struggling offense afloat. And the pitching, the second-best in the National League, led the way. Jason Schmidt won 17 games and posted a 2.34 ERA.

Dodger pitching was even better. Los Angeles’ staff ERA was the composite best in the National League and the bullpen was its crown jewel. Guillermo Mota and Paul Quantrill worked setup and posted sub-2.00 ERAs. And when you got to the ninth inning? Eric Gagne merely saved 55 games, did it with a buck-20 ERA, and won the Cy Young Award.

L.A’s problem is that they were a team of complete contrasts—the best pitching combined with the worst hitting. That’s why San Francisco ultimately ran away with the NL West and clinched with plenty of room to spare. The Dodgers fell into the packed wild-card race that, along with the Central Division, would shape the National League in September.

It wasn’t until mid-September that Florida took the wild-card lead and they were still only a half-game up on Philadelphia with a week to go. But a strong start to that final week put the Marlins in control and they were able to wrap up the playoff spot on Friday.

The NL Central was even hotter. A brief early September slump by St. Louis proved fatal to their hopes, even as they lingered closely in the rearview mirror. Coming into the final weekend it was Chicago and Houston in a dead heat. On Friday, the Astros lost to Milwaukee while the Cubs were rained out, allowing Chicago to nudge out front by a half-game. On Saturday, Houston lost again. Meanwhile, the Cubs swept a doubleheader from the Pittsburgh Pirates and clinched.

Thus, the National League playoffs were set. Chicago would go on the road to open against Atlanta, while Florida traveled to San Francisco.

The New York Yankees were coming off what was, at least for them in this era, a down year. After a run from 1998-2001 where they won four straight American League pennants and three World Series titles, the Yanks had been bounced in the Division Series round in 2002.

The usual suspects led new New York’s “comeback” bid. Derek Jeter hit .324. Jason Giambi ripped 41 home runs and drove in 107 runs. Hideki Matsui, a new free agent signed from Japan, arrived, and racked up 106 RBIs. And catcher Jorge Posada had the best year of his career. With 30 homers and 101 ribbies, Posada finished third in the final AL MVP voting. The starting rotation was keyed by 17-game winners in Mike Mussina and Roger Clemens. And the incomparable Mariano Rivera saved 40 games with a 1.66 ERA.

The Yankees would get a stiffer challenge in the AL East than had been the case the prior couple of years. The Boston Red Sox had the best offense in the American League, thanks to the emergence of a new DH by the name of David Ortiz. The man who would eventually become the face of the franchise finished fifth in the MVP voting. Bill Mueller and Manny Ramirez were 1-2 in the AL batting race, with Manny adding 37 home runs and 104 RBIs.

Pitching was a problem in Boston, but the rotation always came back to Pedro Martinez, who placed third in the Cy Young vote with a 2.22 ERA. The award was taken home by another AL East starter—even though the Toronto Blue Jays did not contend, it was no fault of Roy Halladay, whose 22 wins and 266 innings pitched won him the Cy Young.

As had become almost customary, the Red Sox went to the early lead in division race. As was equally customary, the Yankees moved back in front by the All-Star break. What was not customary is that this year Boston pushed back. In early September, the Red Sox were still within 2 ½ games of first place. And while both teams were in a good position to make the playoffs, that was far from a guarantee, thanks to the landscape in the AL West.

The AL West had the defending World Series champion Anaheim Angels. They had the eventual AL MVP in Texas Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez. But the Angels slipped, and the Rangers didn’t have the pitching to support A-Rod. It was Oakland and Seattle who set the pace.

Tim Hudson anchored the A’s pitching staff with 16 wins and 2.70 ERA. With Mark Mulder and Barry Zito behind him, and Keith Foulke saving 43 games, Oakland pitching led the American League. The offense wasn’t particularly good, but with shortstop Miguel Tejada and third baseman Eric Chavez each driving in over 100 runs, they scored enough to win.

Seattle’s pitching was right behind Oakland for composite staff ERA, with Jamie Moyer’s 21 wins leading the way. But their offense was only marginally ahead of the A’s, kept afloat by Ichiro Suzuki batting .312 and Bret Boone hitting 35 homer runs.

The Mariners led the AL West race by four games at the All-Star break before the A’s made a move in late summer. When the stretch drive arrived, Oakland held a narrow two-game lead. Seattle was also just 1 ½ games back of Boston for the wild-card.

It was a 4-teams-for-3-spots race of musical chairs. In early September, a quick burst by New York gave them space in the AL East race and the Yanks eventually put it away. The A’s nudged out a four-game lead by the start of the final week and were able to wrap up the AL West. And in the wild-card fight, the Red Sox clung to a narrow half-game lead over the Mariners with two weeks to go. But Boston chipped away and was able to clinch their playoff spot before the final weekend of the regular season arrived.

The field in the American League would be filled out by the Minnesota Twins in the AL Central. A team that didn’t have stars, but played fundamentally sound baseball, Minnesota got good years from outfielders Jacque Jones (.304 batting average) and Torii Hunter (26 homers, 102 RBIs). The Twins moved to an early lead in the division race.

But Minnesota would get a challenge from two places. The Chicago White Sox got big years from a trifecta of offensive stars in Frank Thomas, Carlos Lee, and Magglio Ordonez. Rotation ace Esteban Loaiza won 21 games and finished second in the Cy Young voting.

And the real surprise, at least for the first part of the season, was in Kansas City. Led by a rising star in centerfielder Carlos Beltran, the Royals were the surprise of all of baseball by the All-Star break. An early summer surge had Kansas City not only leading the pack in the AL Central, but with a healthy seven-game lead on both Minnesota and Chicago.

Late summer was hard on Kansas City, and when the stretch drive arrived, Chicago and Minnesota were neck-and-neck, with the Royals having slipped three games back. Kansas City couldn’t arrest their fall. With two weeks to go, the White Sox and Twins were still in a dead heat. With both off the pace in the wild-card fight, the promise of winner-take-all drama lay ahead. But it was the penultimate week where the AL Central was decided—in the course of seven days, the Twins bolted to a 5 ½ game margin and clinched early in the final week.

Minnesota’s closing push got them a Division Series date with New York. Oakland and Boston were slated to play in the other ALDS round.

The Yankees spotted the Twins Game 1, and then New York’s pitching took over, allowing just three runs over the next three games and closing it out in four. The other three series were all marked by high drama.

Florida got a split on the road in San Francisco, and then came home and won two dramatic games to upset the Giants. Chicago and Atlanta kept trading wins all the way through, but the Cubs got the last one, 5-1 on the road, and joined the Marlins in the NLCS.

Boston and Oakland took drama to new levels. The A’s won a 12-inning affair in Game 1 and when that was followed with an easy win in Game 2, this series looked over. But then the Red Sox won an 11-inning game to stay alive. They used an eighth-inning rally in Game 4 to get the series back west. In Game 5, the Red Sox clung to a 4-3 lead in the ninth. The A’s loaded the bases with two outs. Derek Lowe finally ended it when he struck out Terrence Long. The Red Sox would get a crack at their hated rival from the Bronx in the ALCS.

Division Series play might have been the most exciting the sport had seen since this round took its current form in 1995. But October was just getting started.

Boston kept their momentum going by winning Game 1 in New York. But the Yanks took the next two, including a Game 3 marked by beanballs and brawls. New York brought a 3-2 series lead back home and had the lead late in Game 6.

After Chicago lost an extra-inning game to open the NLCS, the Cub bats unloaded—with 25 runs over the next three games, they moved to the brink of the pennant. Even losing Game 5 didn’t seem like too much cause for alarm. Not when they came home and had the lead late in Game 6.

In the American League, the Red Sox didn’t roll over. They rallied and stunned the Yankee crowd with a 9-6 win, setting up a Game 7. What happened late in the game at Wrigley Field was even more dramatic. The Cubs weren’t able to get an out on a now-infamous case of fan interference. That was followed by a complete collapse and the Marlins stunned the Chicago crowd by forcing another Game 7.

The championship pursuits of the Red Sox and Cubs were two of the most fabled storylines in all of sports, prior to 2004 and 2016 respectively. The prospect of the two teams meeting in the World Series was a major storyline, not just in baseball, but across sports.

But it wouldn’t happen. The Cub collapse of Game 6 was already epic, and even taking an early lead in Game 7 didn’t help. Florida won 9-6 and went to the World Series. Boston didn’t miss an opportunity to torture their own fan base—a 5-2 lead in the eighth that should have been larger disappeared, amidst acrimony over the handling of the bullpen. New York forced extra innings and eventually won on a walk-off blast from Aaron Boone.

Even without the Red Sox and Cubs, the Fall Classic still offered an Underdog vs. Dynasty storyline. And there were a few more plot twists to go. After losing the opener, the Yankees got a couple easy wins and had the lead in Game 4. But the Marlins rallied, won that game, and also took Game 5. Even so, with the battle-tested Yanks going home to the Bronx, there was a general expectation that this noble Marlins bid would fall short.

That general expectation ran into the buzzsaw that was Marlins’ starter Josh Beckett. The hard-throwing young righthander was completely locked in for Game 6, dealt a five-hitter and shut down the New York bats in a 2-0 win.

The Florida Marlins might have only made the playoffs twice in their short history that went back to 1993. But both times, in 1997 and now in 2003, they ended up champions.