The 2003 MLB playoffs are remembered for some epic moments–the drama of the League Championship with Aaron Boone, Steve Bartman and the heartbreaks suffered by the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs. Or the surprise World Series, where the young Florida Marlins behind 23-year-old Josh Beckett upset the New York Yankees. What we shouldn’t overlook is that 2003 was also the year the Division Series provided constant drama. Here’s a look back on the eight teams that gave us those thrills and the big moments in each series.
New York Yankees (101-61): In addition to the usual suspects of Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams, the Yanks had signed Japanese star Hideki Matsui, and they got big years from Jason Giambi and Alfonso Soriano, who combined for 79 home runs.
What ultimately separated New York was starting pitching, anchored by 21-game winner Andy Pettite, and including Mike Mussina, Roger Clemens and David Wells who combined to win 49 more.
Oakland A’s (96-66): The Moneyball boys had a lineup with Miguel Tejada, Jermaine Dye and Eric Chavez, and they too had the pitching. Tim Hudson went 16-7 with a 2.70, while Barry Zito and Mulder combined for 29 more wins and each had ERAs in the low 3s.
Minnesota (90-72): Minnesota never has been able to do with stars, but both catcher A.J. Pierzynski and outfielder Tori Hunter were just breaking one. The same was true on the pitching side with 23-year-old Johan Santana and Kyle Lohse.
Boston (95-67): Manny Ramirez hit .325 with 37 home runs and 2003 was also the year David Ortiz emerged as a big-time hitter, with 31 home runs. An era of Red Sox offensive firepower was born in ’03, as their balanced lineup, including batting champ Bill Mueller, led the league in both on-base percentage and slugging percentage. The pitching relied heavily on ace Pedro Martinez.
Atlanta (101-61): The Braves lost lefthanded pitching ace Tom Glavine to free agency and restructured themselves around power. Javy Lopez hit 43 home runs, Andruw Jones went deep 36 times and Gary Sheffield hit 39. Chipper Jones on-base percentage exceeded .400 and the pitching staff could still circle around to Greg Maddux every fifth day, while John Smoltz saved 45 games in the bullpen.
San Francisco (100-61): Barry Bonds hit 45 home runs and was walked 148 times, as he won his fifth career MVP award and third in a row. J.T. Snow, Ray Durham and Jose Cruz were high OBP players, while Jason Schmidt was a true ace in the rotation, winning 17 games with a 2.34 ERA.
Chicago (88-74): Sammy Sosa hit 40 bombs, while Moises Alou posted a solid offensive year, with a .357 OBP/.462 slugging percentage. This Cubs’ team finally had pitching though. Mark Prior was an 18-game winner with a 2.43 ERA, and Carlos Zambrano and Kerry Wood combined to win 27 more, with ERAs at 3.20 or below.
Florida (91-71): The Marlins had hitters on the corners, with third baseman Mike Lowell hitting 32 home runs and first baseman Derek Lee popping 31 more. Ivan Rodriguez, one of the great offensive catchers of all-time was behind the plate and posted a .369 OBP/.474 slugging percentage. Dontrelle Willis was a 21-year-old pitcher who electrified the league, and ended up with 14 wins, one of three on the staff. Beckett made 23 starts and posted a 3.04 ERA, and the Marlins also had a 20-year-old utility infielder by the name of Miguel Cabrera breaking in.
Boston-Oakland: The drama started quickly out west. Oakland trailed 3-2 in the ninth inning of Game 1, but chased Red Sox closer Byun-Hung Kim and tied the game, later winning in 12. An easy A’s win in Game 2 sent the Red Sox back home to Fenway on the brink.
Boston took 11 innings to win Game 3, and then trailed 4-3 with two on and two outs in the eighth inning of Game 4. They were facing Oakland closer Keith Foulke, who would become a Boston legend one autumn later. In this game, in the late afternoon, Ortiz beat him with a two-run double that forced Game 5.
Ramirez unloaded with a three-run homer in Game 5 and Martinez outpitched Zito, handing a 4-3 lead to the Red Sox bullpen. By the time two were out, they had walked the bases full (keep in mind that this is the same pen manager Grady Little would be excoriated for not trusting just a week and a half later). Derek Lowe finally struck out Terrance Long a beautiful backdoor breaking ball that froze Long and caught the corner.
Minnesota-New York: This one was the least dramatic of the four, but Santana made it interesting by beating Mussina in the series opener in the Bronx. The young Twins’ ace was set to go in Game 4, with an odd schedule making that full rest. Jeter’s bat got rolling though, he went 6-for-14 for the series and the Yanks won the next three, including taking out Johan by an 8-1 count in the clincher.
Florida-San Francisco: Another series that was settled in four games, but this one felt like five. Schmidt outdueled Beckett two-zip in a tense Game 1. Florida won Game 2, and then the drama intensified when the series shifted to South Beach.
Game 3 went to the 11th inning and San Francisco scored to take the lead. Then Cruz misplayed a fly ball, a walk followed and a sac bunt moved the winning runs into scoring position. Tim Worrell, who had the misfortune to be on the mound when the Giants coughed up Game 6 of the 2002 World Series, induced a tap-back to him and a force out at home. But Rodriguez hit a two-run single to right and the Marlins won.
The fourth game was similarly back-and-forth before Florida survived 7-6 to clinch. San Francisco’s Edgardo Alfonzo had hit .529, and while Bonds only had two hits, he was walked eight teams. Nonetheless, their October ended in heartbreak again.
Chicago-Atlanta: Wood won the series opener in Atlanta and the Cubs were tied late in Game 2 before a two-out, two-run double from Mark DeRosa tied the series for the Braves. Wrigley Field was the site of Prior outdueling Maddux 3-1. Prior’s later arm injuries ended his career, but at the time this had the feel of a “changing of the guard” game, with one ace giving way to another.
Chipper Jones homered twice to get Atlanta back home for Game 5, but Wood looked like the ace that he too was expected to be in the decisive game. Wood pitched eight sharp innings and won 5-1 and the Cubs had advanced.
In a best-of-five series, any kind of series comeback is hard, so it’s surely noteworthy that in three of the matchups that team that won the opener lost the series. And the one exception–Cubs-Braves went the full five games anyway. If baseball picked Division Series MVPs, some logical winners would have been…
*Pedro Martinez (two excellent road starts)
*Derek Jeter (6-for-14)
*Edgardo Alfonzo (even in defeat, his hitting kept San Francisco right in it)
*Kerry Wood (easily the best performer in any of the Division Series matchups).