Those 5 Damned Outs

Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Fasten your seat belt. This one isn't going to be much fun.

I wasn't going to write about this.

But then I heard that CSN Chicago was going to air a special on Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS, everything that happened that night 10 years ago today, its aftermath, etc. and I thought I'd weigh in. Obviously, I haven't seen this show yet and I'm not sure I can watch it, though I did watch ESPN's "Catching Hell" (which I thought was well done, and much more sensitive to its topic than I thought it would be).

Instead, I think I'll just say a bit about what I was feeling and thinking that night.

I had just returned from Miami, where I saw games 3, 4 and 5 in person. Despite the Cubs' loss in Game 5 -- and even though Carlos Zambrano had a bad outing, no one was going to beat Josh Beckett that day -- I think I speak for most people here when I say that with Mark Prior and Kerry Wood scheduled to go in Games 6 and 7, we all thought that the series would go the Cubs' way, even if it took the full seven games, and we'd be headed to the World Series.

For seven innings Game 6 did go all the Cubs' way. I vividly remember turning to one of our group around the end of the seventh inning and saying, "Is this really happening?"

You all know what happened, I don't have to tell you every single detail. But I do want to make these points:

What Dusty Baker did in the aftermath of the Bartman incident was unconscionable. Managers have very few moments during the course of a game where they can singularly affect what goes on in the subsequent action. This was one of those moments. Look at the photo at the top of this post. Mark Prior was rattled. His focus and concentration had been broken. Remember that Prior had just turned 23 and was in his first full major-league season. Right then it was the manager's job to come to the mound and slow the game down. To let everyone know that there were just five outs to go, the Cubs still had the lead, and they were the better team.

Some managers would have brought in their closer at that point, given that Prior had thrown 112 pitches. Joe Torre would have; of course, he had the best in the game. Tony La Russa probably would have. That's a debate topic; Prior was close to being done, and with his concentration gone, it could have been the right time to take him out, either then, or after he eventually walked Luis Castillo. A smart manager would have stalled while Joe Borowski started to get ready. 2003 was by far Borowski's best year, and he was well rested, having not thrown since Game 3 (four days earlier).

But none of that happened. Baker sat on his butt until it was too late. That's his singular failure as a manager.

Next, let's assume the inning continues as it did in reality up to the point where Alex Gonzalez committed the key error. The walk put runners on first and second with one out, and Ivan Rodriguez then singled in a run. The Cubs are still leading 3-1 with runners on first and second.

Gonzalez then boots what should have been an inning-ending double-play ball. Granted, you don't assume a DP on plays like that, but Gonzalez had been an excellent fielder all year, making just 10 errors in 150 games. He picked the worst possible time for Error No. 11. (Incidentally, the player who hit the ground ball was Miguel Cabrera, then in his rookie season.)

If Gonzalez completes the DP, it's 3-1 Cubs heading into the last of the eighth. But let's assume he gets just one of those two outs. Then you're looking at runners on first and third with two out and the next hitter is future Cub Derrek Lee.

Lee doubled. Let's say the same thing happens that happened in that game -- two runs score. The game is now tied, and finally, Dusty heads out of the dugout and brings Kyle Farnsworth into the game. Farnsworth issued an intentional walk to Mike Lowell. The next man due up is Jeff Conine.

Conine flied to right.

If Gonzalez had gotten one out with that ground ball, the inning is then over with the score tied. If you look at the boxscore for that game, you'll see that although the individual pitcher earned runs add up to six, the team was charged with just three. This happens from time to time when an inning should have ended -- as it should have here -- so that the team overall has fewer earned runs than an individual pitcher (Farnsworth) who came in and got hit hard.

Tie game, heading to the bottom of the eighth. Aramis Ramirez, Eric Karros and Gonzalez are due up. In that scenario, I think the Cubs win the game.

But down 8-3? No way. And this quote from Moises Alou from the Sun-Times article linked above (and the CSN special) tells a bigger story:

"I didn’t really like our chances after what happened," Alou told CSN. "I had a feeling they would win. . . . I told Aramis we should book a flight in case we left [after Game 7]. . . . We had that gut feeling."

Now, you'll say a player shouldn't say that or do that and you'd be right. But you know what? I felt that way leaving Wrigley Field that night. I'll bet most of you felt that way. I remember seeing people on the street outside Wrigley after Game 6 trying to sell their tickets to Game 7 -- they must have felt that way, they didn't want to see what they thought was inevitable.

And that leaves us with the feeling I think many of us had after Game 6, and especially after Game 7: anger. Not sadness or defeat, but anger that this series, perhaps the Cubs' best shot at a World Series in the divisional play era, had been taken from us by... well, who knows? Fate? One bad play?

10 years ago today. It is hard to believe that 10 years have gone by. Time has a way of assuaging pain and anger when it comes to sports defeats.

Somehow, though, not this one. It still hurts. Current team ownership and management has nothing to do with this event, just two Cubs who played for the 2003 squad were active in the major leagues in 2013 (Ramirez and Farnsworth), and the current brass is doing its best to try to get the Cubs back to contention.

But 10 years, man. Let's hope it doesn't take another 10.

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