Tuesday, June 28, 2011

2003 ALDS: Variation on a theme

It was the same old story for Oakland. Another playoff appearance, another first-round series that went five games. The previous three years, Oakland had lost that fifth and deciding game.

The only reason for hope this year was that the A's were up against Boston rather than New York. Boston's poor playoff history was well-documented, perhaps over-documented. If anybody could find a way to lose against the team that had made an art of losing, it would be Boston.

Like in past series, there was no reason the A's should have had to play in a Game 5. They won the first two games at home against Boston, scoring five runs each time, giving them three chances to close out the series. But the Red Sox won Game 3 in 11 innings, then scored two in the eighth of closer Keith Foulke to win Game 4, and it was the same old story again. Sure, the A's were at home for Game 5, but at this point, they had to believe they were cursed, right? Plus, in this Game 5, they were up against the great Pedro.

The Game
Game 4 starter Barry Zito got the dubious honor of starting for Oakland in Game 5, drawing the short straw to get the ball against Pedro Martinez. Already a proven postseason performer, Martinez was just finishing up the prime of his career in 2003. A slew of no decision left him with only 14 wins in 2003, but the 4 losses and the league-best 2.22 ERA were still plenty impressive. He was still feared around baseball, and though Zito was considered Oakland's ace, he didn't have anywhere near the reputation.

Given Oakland's recent postseason history, it was a bit of a surprise when Jose Guillen drove home the game's first run in the bottom of the fourth, letting Oakland draw first blood. But it was only a matter of time before A's would become postseason choke artists again.

It started in the top of the sixth. Zito had only given up two hits to that point, but Jason Varitek led off the inning with a game-tying home run. From there, the A's must have felt the pressure, felt their season slipping away once again. Johnny Damon walked after a nine-pitch at bat. Nomar Garciaparra gave Zito and the A's a break by fouling out to first, but then Zito hit Todd Walker with a pitch, putting two runners on base for Manny Ramirez.

It's probably pretty easy by now to figure out what Ramirez did in the next at bat.

And so that's that. Boston is leading 4-1, and they're moving on. Oakland would cement their legacy as the postseason choke artists of the 2000s. That run in the bottom of the sixth didn't matter. The run in the bottom of the eighth mattered only in that it knocked Martinez out of the game, making way for Boston's suspect bullpen.

But then came the bottom of the ninth, where the first two Oakland batters walked. See, this was getting interesting. Oakland had a poor recent history of playoff chokes, but Boston had a long, lengthy history of them. Suddenly, Oakland seemed like they had a chance.

And Boston was getting desperate. After their closer walked the first two batters of the game, Derek Lowe, who hadn't pitched in relief all season, came in to get the save. Oakland gave them the first out with a sacrifice that put runners on second and third with one out. That bunt might have been the textbook play to make, but this A's team wasn't known for hitting for a high average. They couldn't afford to be giving up outs with so few of them left in the season.

On cue, pinch-hitter Adam Melhuse struck out looking. Oakland looked dead. But then Chris Singleton drew a walk, Oakland's third of the inning. Now Boston looked dead. Oakland was a single away from winning the series, and they were a walk, or a wild pitch, or - considering this was Boston pitching - an error away from tying the game.

It only took four pitches to decide things. With the bases loaded, two outs in the ninth, trailing by one, pinch-hitter Terrance Long did something that will probably haunt him for years: he struck out looking. As Boston celebrated, Oakland hung their heads. Just like last year. And the year before that, and the year before that...

Boston's win over Oakland set up an ALCS against the Yankees, giving national media outlets multiple chances to wax poetic about the great rivalry while the two teams played seven grueling games. Boston's famous curse was played up over and over again in the series, especially in the eighth inning of Game 7, when a fatigued Pedro Martinez was left in the game to give up the game-tying run. When Aaron Boone ended things with a home run in the bottom of the 11th, the nation's baseball fans were obligated to wonder if Boston would ever break their curse.

(Hint. They did. The very next year).

Oakland, meanwhile, stayed competitive the next few years, but free-agency cost them many of the great stars that had led them to four straight playoff appearances. They missed out on the playoffs two straight years before returning to the postseason in 2006. This time, though, they got some revenge, sweeping the Twins in the first round before getting swept in the ALCS. That run in 2006 was the last gasp for that Oakland dynasty, as they haven't had a winning record since.

The Rundown

14. Boston 4, Oakland 3 (2003 ALDS)
15. Cleveland 4, N.Y. Yankees 3 (1997 ALDS)
16. L.A. Angels 5, N.Y. Yankees 3 (2005 ALDS)
17. Texas 5, Tampa Bay 1 (2010 ALDS)
18. San Francisco 3, Atlanta 1 (2002 NLDS)
19. N.Y. Yankees 5, Oakland 3 (2001 ALDS)
20. Seattle 3, Cleveland 1 (2001 ALDS)
21. Chicago 5, San Francisco 3 (1998 NL Wild Card tiebreaker)
22. N.Y. Yankees 7, Oakland 5 (2000 ALDS)
23. Los Angeles 4, Houston 0 (1981 NL West Division Series)
24. Montreal 3, Philadelphia 0 (1981 NL East Division Series)
25. N.Y. Yankees 7, Milwaukee 3 (1981 AL East Division Series)
26. Seattle 9, California 1 (1995 AL West tiebreaker)
27. Chicago 5, Atlanta 1 (2003 NLDS)
28. Houston 12, Atlanta 3 (2004 NLDS)
29. N.Y. Mets 5, Cincinnati 0 (1999 NL Wild Card tiebreaker)
30. Cleveland 8, Boston 3 (1948 AL tiebreaker)
31. Houston 7, Los Angeles 1 (1980 NL West tiebreaker)

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