The Cubs started 2003 looking like an entirely different team than they’d been in the years leading up to it. On June 8, they beat the Yankees to move to 34-27. They had an off day the next day and then a stretch of 33 scheduled games in 34 days. They completed that stretch and reached the All-Star break at a 47-47 record.
Despite the struggles leading into the break, they entered the break in third place and just three games out of first. The team had lost its promising young center fielder Corey Patterson to a season-ending injury. There was no real replacement to Patterson, though Tom Goodwin and Troy O’Leary were part of the bench for that team and so the team at least had veteran depth. Hee-Seop Choi had also been injured. He returned, but by the time he did he’d lost his starting job to veteran Eric Karros. Opening day third baseman Mark Bellhorn had been traded in June. Ex-Cub Jose Hernandez had been the return in the trade. Alas, returning to the scene of some of his best seasons as a pro didn’t revitalize his career.
The starting pitching was very good in the first half. Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Matt Clement and Carlos Zambrano were all capable of dominant performances. Of course there will still clunkers, but on four out of every five days the Cubs had a pitcher who gave them a better than average chance of winning. Of course, every fifth day they had a pitcher who made them much more likely than not to lose.
The hitters put together a line of .262/.330/.419 in the first half. Not world beaters, but their 417 first half runs had them on a 4.44 runs/game pace. The pitchers? Their first half saw them post a 3.97 ERA. Though with 419 runs allowed, the team had a just slightly negative run differential. So the team was pretty legitimate .500 team. Even that would be an accomplishment for a team that had lost 95 games a year earlier. But that first 61 games said that this team could be more... Let’s see if things turned for the better after the break.
Game 95, July 18: Cubs 0 at Marlins 6 (47-48)
The Cubs got a decent start from Clement to start the second half as he met the minimum definition for a quality start. He allowed six hits, no walks and three runs in six innings of work. He struck out four. He was outdueled by Mark Redman who threw seven scoreless innings allowing four hits and no walks. He struck out nine Cubs. This was the first time all season the Cubs had a losing record.
Three Heroes/Three Goats:
- Superhero: Eric Karros (.050). Eric had a single and a double in his three at bats.
- Hero: Sammy Sosa (.028). Sosa had one hit and two strikeouts in four at bats.
- Sidekick: Mark Grudzielanek (.010). Only three different Cub players reached base in this game. Grudzy had two singles in four at bats out of the lead off spot.
- Billy Goat: Moises Alou (-.180). The Cubs cleanup hitter was hitless in three at bats and grounded into one of two double plays. The Cubs only sent 30 men to the plate in the loss.
- Goat: Matt Clement (-.091). This outing will sometimes land on a hero podium, but not when there is no offense behind it.
- Kid: Alex Gonzalez (-.080). Two strikeouts in three at bats.
Game 96, July 19: Cubs 1 at Marlins 0 (48-48)
The bats continued to struggle coming out of the break, posting just four hits in nine innings. Alas, they managed to push one run across and Kerry Wood was good enough to make it hold up. Kerry had only five complete-game shutouts in his career. Included in those five games were two one-hitters and this two-hitter. He faced only 31 batters in the game (he did walk five). In two starts against the Marlins in the 2003 regular season, he threw two complete games, allowed five hits, eight walks and one run.
Three Heroes, Three Goats:
- Superhero: Kerry Wood (.801). Complete game shutout, two hits, five walks, eight strikeouts.
- Hero: Moises Alou (.090). Alou had the Cubs’ lone extra base hit leading off the fifth inning. He eventually scored the only run of the game. He had two hits in four at bats on the day.
- Sidekick: Lenny Harris (.032). Harris batted seventh and played third in this one. He had a hit and a walk in three plate appearances.
- Billy Goat: Sammy Sosa (-.078). Sammy was hitless in four at bats. He struck out once.
- Goat: Mark Grudzielanek (-.065). Grudzy was hitless in four at bats batting second.
- Kid: Damian Miller (-.062). Miller had only two at bats in this one and struck out in one of them.
Game 97, July 20: Cubs 16 at Marlins 2 (49-48)
From the lowest scoring game of the year to the highest offensive output of the year, the Cubs had back to back wins and their second series win in about a month and a half and both were against the Marlins. The assault was lead by Trenidad Hubbard, of all people. Hubbard had been drafted way back in 1986 with the 13th pick in the 12th round (#302) by the Houston Astros. Hubbard played in parts of 10 seasons in the major leagues. He had a total of 476 games played and just 864 plate appearances. He wasn’t a bad hitter all things considered with a line of .257/.333/.382 in his career. But 2003 was his final year in the big leagues. He got into 10 games for the Cubs that July, the only 10 he appeared in for them. He started two games.
Three Heroes/Three Goats:
- Superhero: Trenidad Hubbard (.198). In the previous nine years of his career, Hubbard had nine three-hit games (including three of them in 2002). In this game, he had four hits (the only four hits he had as a Cub). Among the four hits was a double. He scored a run and drove in two. He even had a walk (and a strikeout) for good measure.
- Hero: Carlos Zambrano (.121). Carlos allowed one run on six hits and two walks in 6 1⁄3 innings of work. He also had two singles, a double, two RBI and a run scored. Carlos had seven three-hit games and one four-hit game in his career.
- Sidekick: Sammy Sosa (.109). Sosa moved into the third spot after Zambrano’s hitting was dropped. But this day was worthy of this spot. Sammy had two singles, a homer, two runs, two RBI and a walk (and a strikeout) in his five plate appearances.
- Billy Goat: Jose Hernandez (-.032). Jose actually had two hits, a run, and three RBI in his six at bats. He struck out once. The crowd is necessarily tough when seven Cubs had multi-hit games.
- Goat: Damian Miller (-.011). Miller had a hit, a run and an RBI in five at bats.
- Kid: Eric Karros (-.009). Eric had two hits, two walks, four runs and two RBI in six plate appearances. This may be the toughest crowd I’ve ever seen.
Game 98, July 21: Cubs 15 at Braves 6 (50-48)
Fresh off of an offensive outburst in Florida that saw a season-high 16 runs score for the Cubs, they traveled to Atlanta and put 15 more on the board. So if you are keeping track at home, that’s one run in the first two games after the break and then 31 runs in the next two. Or a completely schizophrenic eight runs per game. Oh, and three straight wins. There were so many offensive contributions that Tom Goodwin won’t even sniff the hero podiums with his second career five-hit game.
Three Heroes/Three Goats:
- Superhero: Alex Gonzalez (.252). Alex had two singles, a homer, a walk, a run, and three RBI in six plate appearances.
- Hero: Sammy Sosa (.241). Sammy got the scoring started with a three-run homer in the top of the first. He added two singles and had a total of three runs scored and four RBI. He was walked twice, once intentionally and struck out once in six plate appearances.
- Sidekick: Dave Veres (.189). An odd appearance on the hero side in a blow out. But after the Cubs jumped out to a 4-0 lead after the top of the second, Shawn Estes allowed back to back homers in the bottom of the second for a total of three runs. He allowed another homer and a fifth run in the third inning to give the Braves a 5-4 lead. Then the Braves had a single and a passed ball to start the fourth. The next hitter was pitcher Shayne Reynolds who bunted but the Cubs unsuccessfully tried to cut down the lead runner. After a walk to load the bases that was it for Estes and Veres inherited the bases loaded. A strikeout, pop out and ground out later he had escaped the jam.
- Billy Goat: Shawn Estes (-.488). He officially recorded three innings of work. In three plus innings he allowed seven hits, three home runs, two walks, allowed five runs and only struck out one batter. He also struck out twice in two at bats and otherwise would have been the Goat too.
- Goat: Hee-Seop Choi (-.039). Choi slides up into the second spot. He had one single and two strikeouts in six at bats.
- Kid: Damian Miller (-.004). Just two walks and two strikeouts to show for his six at bats.
Game 99, July 22: Cubs 4 at Braves 8 (50-49)
With Mark Prior missing a start, the Cubs turned to Sergio Mitre to make his major league debut. Sergio was drafted with the second pick in the seventh round (#198) by the Cubs in the 2001 draft. At just 22 years old, he reached the major leagues for the Cubs. Sergio would go on to appear in 143 big league games, 64 of them starts. He threw 454⅔ innings and had a career ERA of 5.21 (4.70 FIP). He pitched for four teams in his career. Sergio has pitched for the last two years in the Mexican league. I suspect he will always remember his big league debut when he faced future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux. He had a single in his only at bat against Maddux and he scored a run.
Three Heroes/Three Goats:
- Superhero: Mark Grudzielanek (.065). Mark had an RBI double in the third inning off of Maddux.
- Hero: Tom Goodwin (.057). Tom got two at bats in this one before being lifted for Trenidad Hubbard. He had one hit.
- Sidekick: Eric Karros (.019). Three more singles for Karros in four at bats in this one.
- Billy Goat: Sergio Mitre (-.464). This was about as ugly as it gets. 3⅔ innings pitched, 10 hits, three walks, eight runs. He allowed a homer and didn’t strike anyone out. The eight runs allowed would be the second worst start of his career.
- Goat: Moises Alou (-.072). Alou was hitless in four at bats.
- Sidekick: Alex Gonzalez (-.059). Alex matched that line. He struck out once.
With three wins in five games against two playoff hopefuls, this was definitely a successful road trip for the Cubs. Five games certainly looks odd, but that was exactly how it was scheduled. The rare three-series week was scheduled. The real oddity, though, was that the Cubs would come home for two game against the Phillies and then immediately go to Houston for three games against the Astros. 10 straight games in four cities to start the second half.
Despite winning three of five, the Cubs actually dropped to 4½ games out of first place over the stretch. Despite a decent start to the second half, the upstart Cubs seemed to be losing their grasp on the NL Central race. 4½ games with 63 to play is far from insurmountable, but it had been a long time since this team was consistently good. The team was certainly in need of a jolt if they were going to stay in the race.
Next time we’ll talk about that jolt along with that odd five game stretch with two games at home and then three in Houston.
Until then, thanks for reading, thanks for commenting.