Monday, May 2, 2011

2003 NLDS: Kerry comes through

Before there was the earth-shattering NLCS, before Steve Bartman became the villian of Chicago, there was the first round of the National League playoffs to get through. The Cubs weren't great in 2003, but they were good enough, ekeing out a Central Division title by one game over Houston. But while they had the worst record of the four NL playoff teams that year, they had one major advantage that gave them an advantage in any series: their starting pitching.

Led by a rejuvinated Kerry Wood and young stars Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano, the Cubs knew they had a shot against Atlanta in the first round. Even though the Braves finished 13 games ahead of the Cubs, Chicago had a fighting chance.

Wood was masterful against Atlanta in Game 1, striking out 11 and giving up only two hits in 7+ innings to give the Cubs the series lead. Chicago's bullpen betrayed them in Game 2, but Prior turned in a masterpiece of his own in Game 3, giving up only two hits in a complete-game victory that put the Cubs one win away. The Cubs lost their home-field advantage in Game 4, but they still had an ace up their sleeve, as Wood was rested and ready to go for Game 5.

The Game
More than anything, the Cubs wanted an early lead in Game 5. An early lead would let Wood settle down and go into cruise control, and it would hopefully help them ignore the pressures associated with the anticipation of their first win in a postseason series since 1908. So when Kenny Lofton led off the game with a double, then went to third on a wild pitch, things seemed good in Chicagoland. When he scored on a Moises Alou single to give the Cubs a 1-0 lead, things couldn't have looked better.

Just for kicks, though, shortstop Alex Gonzalez got into the fun, leading off the second with a home run to make it 2-0. And the way Wood was pitching, that looked like it would be enough. He wasn't giving the Braves anything to hit. His fastball was popping, his curveball was dropping, and the Braves were helpless. Still, though, this was the Cubs, and Cubs fans have gotten used to disaster, have learned to brace themselves for when the other shoe dropped.

That's why it must have been a huge relief to Cubs fans when Aramis Ramirez hit a two-run home run in the sixth inning to make it 4-0. It's a little easier to breathe in a four-run game than in a two-run game. Ramirez' blast also made the Braves' run in the bottom of the sixth a little easier to take.

Wood had little trouble the next two innings. In the top of the ninth, the Cubs put runners on second and third with two outs and Wood due up to bat. It was a tough decision: do you keep the red-hot pitcher in the game, likely sacrificing a chance to get an insurance run in the process, or do you pinch-hit for him with the hopes of getting that fifth run across and hope your bullpen can hold it? The Cubs chose option B, and Tom Goodwin delivered with a pinch-hit single to make it 5-1. The Cubs then closed the door in the bottom of the ninth and were on their way to the NLCS.

The Cubs' win in the NLDS was their first victory in a postseason series since the 1908 World Series, ending a streak of almost improbable ineptitude. But that streak wasn't what Cubs fans were worried about. They were worried about their stretch since 1945 without a World Series appereance and their stretch since 1908 without a championship. They had a chance to take care of one of those streaks in the NLCS against the surprising Florida Marlins.

The Cubs started out hot, too, taking a three-games-to-one series lead. They were one win from the World Series, and they had three chances to do it. But then Josh Beckett threw a complete-game shutout in Game 5. Then Steve Bartman got in the middle of an eight-run rally in Game 6, just when the Cubs were five outs from the World Series.

But there was still Game 7, and Kerry Wood on the mound and Wrigley Field poised to celebrate. The Marlins scored three in the first to dampen the spirits. The Cubs scored the next five runs to start the celebration again. But Wood, who had carried the Cubs on his back all season, really for most of the previous five seasons, finally ran out of steam. He simply didn't have anything left. A three-run fifth gave Florida the lead again. They added three more runs, and they sent the Cubs home with a 9-6 victory in Game 7.

The Cubs' streak is now at 102 seasons since their last championship. Their run in 2003, led by the strong right arm of Kerry Wood, remains the closest they've come since to baseball's promised land.

The Rundown

26. Chicago 5, Atlanta 1 (2003 NLDS)
27. Houston 12, Atlanta 3 (2004 NLDS)
28. N.Y. Mets 5, Cincinnati 0 (1999 NL Wild Card tiebreaker)
29. Cleveland 8, Boston 3 (1948 AL tiebreaker)
30. Houston 7, Los Angeles 1 (1980 NL West tiebreaker)

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