Tuesday, November 29, 2011

2003 NLCS: Bartman and the Billy Goat

Derek Jeter said something recently about the Major League playoffs in the Wild Card era. I don't know if it was this year or last year or what, but the Yankees capttain said that while the best teams get into the playoffs, the hottest teams win in the playoffs.

Jeter had nothing to do with the 2003 National League playoffs, but they epitomized exactly what he was talking about. The best two teams in the NL in 2003 were the Braves and the Giants, each of whom won more than 100 games and cruised to their division titles. That the Marlins and Cubs joined them in the playoffs was supposed to be trivial, just a stepping stone for the two best teams to get past on their way to an NLCS showdown.

But while the Braves and Giants were the best teams, the Cubs and Marlins were the hottest. The Cubs went 19-8 in September, and they needed every one of those wins as they held off Houston by one game to win the NL Central. The Marlins also finished the season on a roll, going 18-8 in September to win the Wild Card by four games.

As the two hottest teams, the Cubs and Marlins both pulled off shockers in the NLDS. Florida upset defending league champ San Francisco in four, with the series ending as Ivan Rodriguez held on to the ball on a home-plate collision with J.T. Snow. The series win gave the Marlins their fourth postseason series victory in as many tries.

The Cubs had a slightly more difficult time dispatching the Braves, needing Kerry Wood's Game 5 gem to beat Atlanta. While Florida continued its unbeaten postseason run, the Cubs round one victory in 2003 was their first postseason series win since the 1908 World Series.

Aside from the postseason pedigree, the Cubs and Marlins were essentially the same team. They were led by dynamic young pitchers; the Cubs had Wood, Mark Prior, and Carlos Zambrano, all of whom were 26 or younger, while Florida countered with 20-somethings Dontrelle Willis, Josh Beckett, and Carl Pavano. They both had a good balance of power and speed, and were overall fairly strong teams. A close seriers wouldn't have been much of a surprise.

But the Cubs took three of the first four games, putting themselves on the cusp of their first World Series berth since 1945. Beckett threw a two-hit shutout in Game 5 to send the series back to Chicago, but with Prior and Wood lined up to pitch games 6 and 7, the series looked to be Chicago's to lose.

And then....

Well, revisionist history makes it seem like the NLCS ended in the eighth inning of Game 6, when Steve Bartman got in Moises Alou's way on Luis Castillo's foul pop. The way some people tell it, you'd think that the Cubs were about to win the series until that fateful popup, after which they immediately lost. In truth, while Bartman may well have prevented Alou from catching that ball, the Cubs were still up 3-0 with five outs to go; two outs later, they were down 8-3, with another game left to play in the series.

So taking the ball for Chicago for Game 7 was Kerry Wood, hoping to realize the awesome potential he showed as a 20-year-old in 1998 while simultaneously reversing the Curse of the Billy Goat and getting his long-tormented franchise back to the World Series. In other words, no pressure.

The Game
So how painful was that first inning home run by Miguel Cabrera? There are the Cubs, in a Game 7, their phenom on the mound, and he gives up a three-run yard sale in the first inning of the biggest game of his life. Devastating, that. The Curse of the Billy Goat, renamed the Curse of Bartman, is striking again.

But then the Cubs showed some fight. In the second inning, after a run was in, Wood hit a two-run home run to tie the game. Alou hit a two-run home run in the third to make it 5-3. Imagine, then, the possibilities. Wood had the lead, thanks largely to his own bat. If he had finished up that game, sending the Cubs to that World Series, the Cubs might have had him in bronze outside the stadium later that night. Hell, they might have named the stadium after him.

But it wasn't to be. The Marlins scratched together three runs off of Wood in the fifth, reclaiming the lead. To make matters worse, they brought in their trump card, Beckett, out of the bullpen. Sure, he was on short rest. But they didn't need him for many innings. Really, they needed him more for the mental boost.

It worked. The Cubs were done. Wood gave up another run, the bullpen gave up two more, and the Marlins won to advance to their second World Series in seven years. For the Cubs, the dream was dead for the 95th straight year. The Billy Goat lived.

After getting past the Cubs, the Marlins were up against the powerful Yankees in the World Series. The Yankees had the advantage in every area. But the Marlins had Beckett. Beckett started twice in the World Series and only gave up one run, including a five-hit masterpiece to clinch the series in Game 6. While the Cubs were at home as losers for the 95th straight year, the Marlins were celebrating their second championship in seven years. Go Billy Goat.

What I'm doing.

The list so far:

12. 2003 NLCS: Florida 9, Chicago 6
13. 2004 NLCS: St. Louis 5, Houston 2
14. 1972 ALCS: Oakland 2, Detroit 1
15. 1973 ALCS: Oakland 3, Baltimore 0
16. 1985 ALCS: Kansas City 6, Toronto 2
17. 2007 ALCS: Boston 11, Cleveland 2
18. 1991 NLCS: Atlanta 4, Pittsburgh 0
19. 1973 NLCS: New York 7, Cincinnati 2
20. 1987 NLCS: St. Louis 6, San Francisco 0
21. 1988 NLCS: Los Angeles 6, New York 0
22. 2004 ALCS: Boston 10, New York 3
23. 1986 ALCS: Boston 8, California 1
24: 1996 NLCS: Atlanta 15, St. Louis 0

Still to come:
1972 NLCS: Cincinnati vs. Pittsburgh
1976 ALCS: Kansas City vs. New York
1977 ALCS: Kansas City vs. New York
1980 NLCS: Houston vs. Philadelphia
1981 NLCS: Los Angeles vs. Montreal
1982 ALCS: California vs. Milwaukee
1984 NLCS: Chicago vs. San Diego
1992 NLCS: Atlanta vs. Pittsburgh
2003 ALCS: Boston vs. New York
2006 NLCS: New York vs. St. Louis
2008 ALCS: Boston vs. Tampa Bay

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