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The Narrative Of The 2004 MLB Season

The 2004 MLB season was one of the most historic in a sport that has no shortage of rich historical moments. The ’04 season proved to be the one generations of New Englanders had waited for, ending with the Boston Red Sox winning their first World Series title since 1918.

The Red Sox had made one of the two big splashes of the offseason when they swung a deal to acquire Curt Schilling for the starting rotation. Schilling would win 21 games and finish second in the Cy Young voting. Schilling was added to a staff that included future Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, who won 16 games. Another new acquisition, Keith Fouke, saved 32 games with a 2.17 ERA. Boston’s pitching, long a weak point, ended up third-best in the American League.

And could the Red Sox hit. Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz each cleared the thresholds of a .300 batting average, 40 home runs, and 130 RBIs. They batted 3-4 in the lineup, and they finished 3-4 in the American League MVP voting.

But the New York Yankees, Boston’s usual roadblock, were not only the defending AL champs, with four World Series titles since 1996, but they had upgraded themselves in the offseason. The other big splash was the Yankees acquiring Alex Rodriguez, shifting him from shortstop to third base and pairing him with Derek Jeter on the left side of the infield. A-Rod hit 36 homers and drove in 106 runs. Hideki Matsui also cleared the 30/100 benchmarks for homers and ribbies. And Gary Sheffield hit 36 home runs of his own, drove in 121 runs and finished second in the MVP tally. The Yankee offense was second-best in the AL behind the Red Sox.

Where New York started to show slippage was pitching, thanks to the departures of Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and David Wells. A staff that was usually near the top of the American League in composite ERA slipped to sixth. No one in the rotation had a stopper type of year. There was still Mariano Rivera, who finished third in the Cy Young vote, to clean up at the end. But the Yankees were starting to show leaks.

Those leaks were not immediately apparent. New York had a seven-game lead on Boston at the All-Star break, and the Red Sox were in a tough fight for what was then a single wild-card. Boston moved dramatically at the trade deadline, dealing franchise icon Nomar Garciaparra, and getting better defensively. That came one week after the Red Sox had taken two of three from the Yankees in a wild weekend at Fenway Park. And Boston heated up.

The Red Sox drive to catch the Yankees in the AL East came up short, but Boston pulled away in the wild-card race. Both teams comfortably made the playoffs and appeared on a collision course for a rematch in the ALCS.

Another historic franchise emerged as the team to beat in the National League. The St. Louis Cardinals got huge years from first baseman Albert Pujols, centerfielder Jim Edmonds, and third baseman Scott Rolen. Pujols hit .331, bashed 46 homers and drove in 123 runs. Edmonds’ numbers in the Triple Crown categories were .301, 42/111. Scott Rolen played stellar defense and ended up at .314, 34/124. These three players all finished in the top 5 of the NL MVP vote and the Cards scored more runs than anyone in the National League.

The pitching staff didn’t have a clear standout, but they were balanced and had Jason Isringhausen cleaning everything up with 47 saves. The St. Louis rotation was second-best in the NL. By the All-Star break, they were off and running with a seven-game lead and in September that lead ballooned as high as 17 games. The Cardinals coasted into the playoffs.

St. Louis’ dominance of the division is even more notable because the NL Central had good teams, notably the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs. But the Astros and Cubs could only contend for the wild-card spot, a race that was inextricably tied up with the battle going on in the NL West.

The Los Angeles Dodgers were led by terrific pitching, a balanced rotation and Eric Gagne saving 45 games. A mediocre offense was kept afloat by MVP runner-up Adrian Beltre. The third baseman hit .334, 48 homers and drove in 121 runs in a park renowned for not being the easiest to hit in.

In most years, that kind of performance would have netted Beltre an MVP. But not in the Barry Bonds era. The San Francisco Giants outfielder had 45 home runs and 101 RBIs. The .362 batting average was certainly impressive. But the .609 on-base percentage was positively mind-blowing. Based almost solely on Bonds’ production, San Francisco had the second-best offense in the National League and covered for a mediocre pitching staff that had problems behind 18-game winner Jason Schmidt.

Los Angeles and San Francisco were in a tight race most of the way, and came down the stretch battling each other, and Houston and Chicago for the wild-card spot. The Astros had acquired Clemens and Pettitte in the offseason, and Clemens took home the Cy Young Award with 18 wins and a 2.98 ERA. Roy Oswalt was  a 20-game winner. Lance Berkman was another .300/30/100 man, leading a lineup that included Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio.

As for Chicago, they had acquired future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux for the rotation and Maddux won 16 games. So did Carlos Zambrano. Aramis Ramirez was the .300/30/100 producer on the North Side of Chicago.

Several other teams moved in and out of the race for the wild-card, most notably the San Diego Padres, who had a good second baseman in Mark Loretta and a terrific bullpen. But ultimately, it was the Dodgers, Giants, Astros, and Cubs racing down the stretch for two spots.

By the time the final weekend arrived, Los Angeles had a three-game lead on San Francisco, but the two rivals were going head-to-head. The Giants and Astros were tied in the wild-card race, with the Cubs just a game back.

On Friday, San Francisco stayed alive in the division. Houston kept pace. Chicago lost. The Cubs were on life support, and the Astros’ win on Saturday finished them off. The Dodgers clinched the West on the penultimate day, also putting the Giants a game back in the wild-card race. On Sunday, Houston got a 5-3 win over Colorado, made the playoffs and sent San Francisco home.

More Western fireworks took place in the AL West race, where the Anaheim Angels and Oakland A’s battled all the way to the final weekend and settled matters head-to-head.

The Angels had the American League MVP in rightfielder Vlad Guerrero Sr., with his .337 batting average, 39 home runs, 126 RBIs and rifle arm defensively. Jose Guillen posted 27 homers/104 ribbies, while Bartolo Colon won 18 games at the top of the rotation. The A’s got 17 wins from Mark Mulder and had the second-best staff ERA in the American League.

Both teams trailed the Texas Rangers, who had a rising star at first base in Mark Teixeira. After the All-Star break, the Red Sox hot stretch took the wild-card out of play, so the A’s, Angels, and Rangers were in an old-fashioned, winner-take-all pennant drive.

Oakland seemed in control, holding a lead that hovered around three games for much of September. But that margin shrunk to one by the final week. And the A’s and Angels were in a dead heat. The Rangers were three games back, but with Anaheim and Oakland going head-to-head, Texas was blocked out.

The Angels struck on Friday night with a 10-0 win that put them on the brink. On Saturday, the A’s took a 4-2 lead into the eighth inning. We were just six outs away from an epic finale. But Anaheim scored three times, won 5-4 and clinched the AL West.

Atlanta and Minnesota filled out the playoff bracket in each league by winning their divisions comfortably, thanks primarily to excellent pitching.

The Braves relied on the trio of Russ Ortiz, Jaret Wright, and John Thomson to win 44 games, while John Smoltz had 44 saves. The Braves had the top staff ERA in the National League and an offense led by J.D. Drew, Chipper Jones, and Andruw Jones ranked fifth in the NL in runs scored. Atlanta trailed the Philadelphia Phillies by a game at the All-Star break but took over the NL East race in late summer, were up 8 ½ games by Labor Day and cruised home in September.

Like Atlanta, Minnesota had the top staff ERA in their league. The Twins’ rotation was led by the great Johan Santana who racked up 20 wins, posted a 2.61 ERA and won the Cy Young Award. Brad Radke was a reliable #2, and Joe Nathan was brilliant in the closer’s role, saving 44 games with a buck-62 ERA. The Twins, like the Braves, trailed a close race at the All-Star break, two back of the Chicago White Sox. But, once again, like Atlanta, Minnesota took over in late summer, were plus 8 ½ by Labor Day and were never challenged in September.

The heavyweights—Boston, New York, and St. Louis—all took care of business in the Division Series. The Red Sox swept the Angels, a series sealed with an extra-inning walkoff blast by Ortiz. The Yankees, after dropping the opener to the Twins, bounced back with a pair of extra inning wins and took home the series in four games. And the Cardinals handled the Dodgers, winning the series in four games and scoring 22 runs in their three wins.

Division Series drama came in the Houston-Atlanta series. The Astros won the odd-numbered games—1,3 and 5. Their bats got to the excellent Brave pitching, scoring 36 runs in the five-game set and the decisive Game 5 ended in a 12-3 rout.

The 2004 baseball season is ultimately remembered for what happened in the League Championship Series. The Yankees-Red Sox battle has been the subject of documentaries and movies. But don’t forget how good the Cardinals-Astros NLCS war was.

St. Louis and New York each took the first two games at home. The Astros answered by winning three straight at home. The Red Sox lost Game 3, but then staved off elimination by taking a 12-inning Game 4 and an epic 14-inning battle in Game 5—both games where Boston trailed in the eighth or ninth inning.

Game 6 of the ALCS would be the night Schilling made his legacy, pitching with blood on his sock from an emergency surgery and getting a 4-2 win that set up Game 7.

The following day would be epic. In a late afternoon start at Busch Stadium, Houston and St. Louis went extra innings before Edmonds kept the Cardinals alive with a walk-off blast. And that night in the Bronx, the Red Sox made history. After losing three straight close games, the Yankees fell apart in Game 7. Boston coasted home 10-3 and became the first (and thus far only) team to rally from a 3-0 series deficit.

One night later, St. Louis finished the job in the NLCS, winning 5-2 and completing a series where the home team won every game.

After all the LCS drama, the World Series ended up being somewhat anticlimactic—at least to the extent that a historic franchise winning a long-sought title can ever be anticlimactic. Boston took Game 1, 11-9 and then won the next three games reasonably comfortably.

It had been more than a long time coming. It took a historic comeback to do it. But the Boston Red Sox were finally the champions of baseball again.