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Cubs Historical Heroes and Goats: 2003, part 26

An extended edition covering the final 10 games of the season

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

When last we checked in on our 2003 Cubs, things were getting tense. Each team had just 10 games left to play. The Astros held a one game lead. That’s certainly not an insurmountable deficit, but the teams had no head to head games left. And to make matters worse, the Cubs had seven road games left and the Astros had only three.

The only slight edge the Cubs had is that they faced a little lesser competition. The Cubs had seven games left against the Pirates (four in Pittsburgh) sandwiched around three in Cincinnati. The Pirates weren’t a terrible team, but they were on their way to an 87-loss season. The Reds were a bit worse than that on their way to a 93-loss season. Still, with seven of these games on the road, best case scenario is maybe six wins in the final 10? That is not ideal when you are chasing, that’s for sure.

The Astros start with three games in St. Louis against a Cardinals team that they had swept a week earlier. Still, that Cardinals team won 85 games and only missed out on an NL Central crown by a narrow margin. From there, the Astros headed home for three with the Giants. The Giants were actually an excellent team. They had the second best record in the National League that year with 100 wins. But then the Astros finished up with four against the Brewers. The Brewers were on their way to a last place finish in the NL Central with a 94-loss season. This is a tough schedule to be sure. They would need to win five games to feel pretty good about at least a tie for the division. Seems like a simple formula. One each from the Cards and Giants and then three from the Brewers.

Here at Heroes and Goats we don’t do cliffhangers. So strap yourself in. We’re going to plow through the final 10 games of the 2003 regular season and see how it all unfolded. There’s a ton to cover, so let’s get right to it.

Game 153, September 19: Cubs 10 at Pirates 9 (83-70)

The Cubs extend their winning streak to four and increase their largest number of games over .500 for the third straight day. This was the first game of a double header and the Astros didn’t play until night time. So, the Cubs pulled to within a half game of first.

This was a wild one. The Cubs drew first blood with three in the second. But then the Pirates bounced back with four of their own in the bottom of the inning. The Cubs were undeterred though. They scored six more times in the third inning. The Pirates weren’t done though. They scored two in the fourth and three in the fifth to tie this game at 9-9 with four innings to go. The Cubs pushed one across in the sixth and then held on for the final four innings.

Carlos Zambrano and Josh Fogg started this game, but neither was effective in this one. Fogg was tagged with nine earned runs out of the 19 batters he faced. Josh Fogg was not a very good pitcher (5.03 ERA/5.02 FIP). But, if you could remove three starts he had against the Cubs, you’d dramatically shift that line. In three outings against the Cubs (9/19/03, 4/15/04, 4/16/08) he allowed 27 earned runs (nine in each) in just 8 13⅓innings of work. Those were, by runs allowed the three worst outings of his career (he also had a game of eight runs allowed in 1⅓ innings that is arguably THE worst).

Three Heroes/Three Goats:

  • Superhero: Aramis Ramirez (.267). In five plate appearances, his old teammates walked him three times. They also struck him out once. In the other one, he hit a two-run third inning homer. He scored twice.
  • Hero/Sidekick: Joe Borowski/Alex Gonzalez (.206). Joe pitched a perfect ninth for his 31st save. Alex had two hits, a walk and a sacrifice fly in five plate appearances. One of the hits was a second inning two-run homer to start the scoring. He drove in three runs and scored twice.
  • Billy Goat: Carlos Zambrano (-.703). He had two hits, including a double, and scored two runs in three at bats. Of course none of that factors into this WPA score which is the second worst Cub WPA score of the year. He threw 4⅔innings, allowed eight hits, three walks and six runs. He did strike out three but allowed two homers.
  • Goat: Sammy Sosa (-.104). Sammy’s season is more than a little depressed by how awful he was over the last few weeks of the season. He was hitless in five at bats in this one and struck out once.
  • Kid: Damian Miller (-.055). Miller did have a hit and scored a run in four at bats.

Game 154, September 19: Cubs 6 at Pirates 10 (83-71)

Not only did the Cubs drop the second game of their doubleheader, but the Astros were beating the Cardinals 8-1 behind another strong outing by Roy Oswalt. The Cubs were now down 1½ games and they only had eight more to play. Things were getting ugly.

Juan Cruz had replaced Shawn Estes in the rotation in September and had been doing pretty well since getting the opportunity. Unfortunately, he didn’t get it done in this one. He threw four innings and allowed six runs. Meanwhile, Pirates starter Salomon Torres was holding the Cubs to three runs over five innings. The Cubs did push three runs across three more runs over the final four innings against the Pirates pen but the Cubs pen answered with four runs allowed of its own, including one allowed by Shawn Estes in relief.

Three Heroes/Three Goats:

  • Superhero: Sammy Sosa (.208). Sammy had a good game in this one, with an RBI single in the first to start the scoring and then later added a solo homer in the fifth to give the Cubs a 3-2 lead. He had two hits, and two RBI in four at bats.
  • Hero: Paul Bako (.032). Cubs pitchers hit pretty well in 2003 and Juan Cruz was a part of that he had an RBI single in this one before departing. But we drop his hitting and that lands Bako in the second spot. Paul had a rare two hit game and both were doubles. He scored a run and drove in another.
  • Sidekick: Tom Goodwin (.029). Tom had a double, a walk and a sacrifice fly in five plate appearances. He scored one and drove in one.
  • Billy Goat: Juan Cruz (-.379). Juan allowed two runs on four hits through four innings. But he was greeted by four consecutive singles to start the fifth. All four runners eventually scored.
  • Goat: Tony Womack (-.155). Womack had a rough day. He struck out with a runner on second and no outs in the first (-.041), grounded out leading off the third (-.026), grounded into an inning ending fielder’s choice in the fourth with the bases loaded (-.088). That was it for his day as Mark Grudzielanek finished the game at second.
  • Kid: Dave Veres (-.073). Veres came in with runners on first and second and the Cubs trailing 4-3. He got a strike out but then allowed an RBI double and a sac fly to allow the two Cruz inherited runners.

Game 155, September 20: Cubs 2 at Pirates 8 (83-72)

For this one it was Matt Clement getting knocked around. He was charged with six runs in just three innings of work. Very much like Cruz, Clement didn’t start out all bad. The Cubs actually scored first in this one with their run in the top of the third. The Astros matched in the bottom of the inning. At that point Matt had allowed one run on three hits. Not bad. But he went out for the fourth and that’s where things went bad.

The Pirates fourth went like this. Walk, walk, hit by pitch. RBI single. Two-run single by two-time ex-Cub Jose Hernandez. Single by opposing starter Ryan Vogelsong. That was it for Clement. Mark Guthrie followed by allowing a two-run single to the first batter he faced. He then got a fly out and a double play line drive to escape the inning without any further damage.

The silver lining? The Cardinals walked it off in 13 against the Astros in a 3-2 win. So the Cubs remained 1½out of first. But now they had just seven games left to play.

Three Heroes/Three Goats:

  • Superhero: Kenny Lofton (.110). Kenny had two of the Cubs seven hits. He had five at bats and struck out once.
  • Hero: Paul Bako (.054). A walk and a run scored in four plate appearances is good enough for the second spot. He struck out twice. He was also boosted by reaching on an error.
  • Sidekick: Moises Alou (.005). Moises had one hit in four at bats.
  • Billy Goat: Matt Clement (-.331). Officially, three innings, six hits, two walks and six runs. He struck out five.
  • Goat: Sammy Sosa (-.069). Four at bats. Four strike outs.
  • Kid: Aramis Ramirez (-.064). He did have an RBI double in this one, but it wasn’t until the eighth inning and the Cubs were trailing 8-1. It was his only hit in four at bats.

Game 156, September 21: Cubs 4 at Pirates 1 (84-72)

Mark Prior stopped the bleeding with 14 strikeouts in 7⅔ innings of work. This pushed his record to 17-6. Joe Borowski closed it out for his 32nd save. The Cubs scored two in the first, one in the third and one in the sixth. The Pirates finally pushed a run across against Prior in the eighth, but the Cubs salvaged a split.

Meanwhile, in St. Louis, the Cardinals were beating the Astros 6-4. That pulled the Cubs to within a half game with six games left on the Cubs calendar. It ain’t over yet. That Saturday loss in 13 innings had to be heart breaking for the Astros. They scored two runs in the third of that game to take a 2-0 lead and then didn’t score over the final 10 innings of the game and watched Albert Pujols walk it off. Then they had to come back for an early game on Sunday and lost again. They had no off day after September 15 and played 13 straight games to end the season.

Three Heroes/Three Goats:

  • Superhero: Mark Prior (.243). In 7⅔ innings he allowed six hits, two walks and one run. He struck out 14.
  • Hero: Aramis Ramirez (.230). Ramirez supplied almost all of the offense in this one. He had an RBI single in the first, a solo homer in the third, and a solo homer in the sixth.
  • Sidekick: Mike Remlinger (.102). Prior allowed a double sandwiched between two strike outs to start the eighth. He then allowed an RBI-single, issued a walk and then allowed another single to load the bases. Remlinger came in, faced one batter (Jose Hernandez) and struck him out to end the threat.
  • Billy Goat: Moises Alou (-.097). Alou was hitless in four at bats and struck out twice.
  • Goat: Ramon Martinez (-.033). Ramon matched Alou with two strikeouts in four at bats.
  • Kid: Kenny Lofton (-.018). Kenny also had two strike outs in four at bats, but he did have a single.

Off Day, September 22:

With the Cubs off and traveling to Cincinnati to continue their final road trip of the season, the Astros squared off with the Giants. This was the first of seven home games to wrap the 2003 regular season for the Astros. The Giants had the best record in the NL that year and so this would be a formidable foe. The Astros lead this one 3-2 after four. But they allowed a run in the seventh and then sent closer Billy Wagner to the hill in a 3-3 tie in the ninth. This was one of those games where a closer struggled in a non-save situation. Wagner allowed three hits and three runs on two home runs while recording only two outs. The Cubs were now tied for first and each team had six games remaining.

Game 157, September 23: Cubs 6 at Reds 0 (85-72)

The Cubs climbed back to 13 above .500 behind a dominant performance from Kerry Wood, who improved to 14-11. Wood allowed only one hit and four walks over seven scoreless. The Cubs scored once in the fifth, four times in the sixth and once in the seventh and made a loser out of Reds starter Scott Randall (a lefty). In Houston, the Giants were beating the Astros 10-3 and the Cubs were back in first place by a game with just five to play.

Three Heroes/Three Goats:

  • Superhero: Kerry Wood (.334). As noted, one hit, four walks in seven scoreless. He struck out 14.
  • Hero: Kenny Lofton (.136). Kenny had two hits, including a double, and a sacrifice fly in four plate appearances. He scored one and drove in one.
  • Sidekick: Aramis Ramirez (.129). Ramirez stayed hot with two hits, including a fifth inning solo homer to start the scoring and an RBI single to cap the scoring in the sixth.
  • Billy Goat: Randall Simon (-.048). Simon was hitless in four at bats.
  • Goat: Sammy Sosa (-.040). Sammy had the same hitless in four at bats line.
  • Kid: Alex Gonzalez (-.034). As did Alex Gonzalez. Alex struck out once.

Game 158, September 24: Cubs 8 at Reds 0 (86-72)

Beating a terrible Reds team in a late September game 8-0 is no shocker. And yet, this may be the most shocking game of the 2003 season. The Cubs moved to a season high 14 games over .500 behind a complete-game shutout by... Shawn Estes. In his first start in weeks, Shawn threw the last shutout of his career (eight total).

In Houston, Roy Oswalt stopped their four game losing streak in a 2-1 win. Oswalt starting this game gave the Astros two possible scenarios. First, he would be lined up to face the Cubs in a one game playoff should the teams finish tied for first. Second, if they needed to win game 162, he’d be on three days rest and could certainly be available in some capacity.

Three Heroes/Three Goats:

  • Superhero: Shawn Estes (.170). The game got lopsided quickly and so he didn’t rack up a lot of WPA. But he was superb in this one allowing only four hits and two walks. He struck out five.
  • Hero: Kenny Lofton (.149). Kenny had two hits and a walk in five plate appearances. He had a run and an RBI in the game.
  • Sidekick: Randall Simon (.086). Randall had just one hit in four at bats. But he also reached on an error in the third and that helped open the flood gates in the third. He scored a run.
  • Billy Goat: Aramis Ramirez (-.071). Ramirez did have a hit and an RBI in five at bats.
  • Goat: Mark Grudzielanek (-.033). Mark actually had a two run double in the third, but lands down here because that actually made it 7-0 at the time. He also had five at bats.
  • Kid: Alex Gonzalez (-.016). Gonzalez had a hit, a walk and two runs scored in four at bats. He struck out once.

Game 159, September 25: Cubs 7 at Reds 9 (86-73)

The Cubs stuck first in this one with three runs in the third. The Reds answered with single runs in the third and fourth. The Cubs built their lead to 4-2 in the fifth. But the wheels fell off for start Carlos Zambrano in a sixth inning in which the Reds scored six runs. Single runs in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings weren’t enough for the Cubs to recover in this one.

The Astros started their final four game series of the year against the Brewers. They did it in style with a 6-1 lead and coupled with the Cubs loss, the teams were tied for first with three to play. All of the planets had aligned for a one-game playoff with each team playing one of the worst teams in the National League at home for three games.

Three Heroes/Three Goats:

  • Superhero: Sammy Sosa (.218). Sammy had a big game with two hits in five at bats. Both of them were homers. He had a two-run homer in the third. He added a solo homer in the eighth.
  • Hero: Randall Simon (.122). Randall had two hits, including a home run in two at bats coming off of the bench.
  • Sidekick: Mark Grudzielanek (.098). Mark had three hits, including a double, a run and an RBI in five at bats.
  • Billy Goat: Mark Guthrie (-.310). Guthrie threw two-thirds of an inning and allowed two hits and two runs. He was the third different Cub pitcher in the sixth inning and was the one on the hill when the Reds took the lead. Mark inherited two runners and allowed both of them to score.
  • Goat: Carlos Zambrano (-.179). Carlos pitched five innings and allowed seven hits, five walks and five runs. He struck out five. Over the last two weeks of the season, the Cubs had several games where their starter ran into trouble in a hurry.
  • Kid: Moises Alou (-.123). Alou was hitless in five at bats with two strikeouts.

Game 160, September 27: Cubs 4, Pirates 2 (87-73)

The Cubs return to Wrigley Field and send their ace to the mound. That was a winning combination as Mark Prior picked up a win to move to 18-6. Prior was pitching on four days rest, but there were only three games due to the game off. The Cubs pushed him up a spot in the rotation given the opportunity and he made it count.

Joe Borowski pitched the ninth and recorded his 33rd save. The Pirates scored first in this one in the fourth inning. The Cubs responded with two in the fourth and two more in the fifth and then held on for the win.

Down in Houston, the Brewers were beating the Astros 12-5. Everyone’s favorite event, a save in a 12-5 game and future Cub Glendon Rusch was the “closer.” One of just four saves he recorded in his career (including two for the Cubs in 2004). The Cubs were up a game with two to play.

Three Heroes/Three Goats:

  • Superhero: Mark Prior (.174). Final tally for Mark following his DL stint? Eight Superhero awards, two Hero awards in 11 starts. The most dominant stretch of pitching I’ve seen this side of Jake Arrieta. He threw 6⅔ innings and allowed seven hits, two walks and two runs. He struck out 10 and allowed a homer.
  • Hero: Kyle Farnsworth (.109). Kyle got the last out of the seventh inning after a rare Prior walk. He then pitched a scoreless eighth, working around a walk of his own and a stolen base.
  • Sidekick: Joe Borowski (.076). Joe allowed a hit and a walk in the ninth. He struck out one.
  • Billy Goat: Troy O’Leary (-.034). Troy was retired in his only at bat off of the bench.
  • Goat: Aramis Ramirez (-.022). Ramirez had a hit and an RBI in this one in four at bats.
  • Kid: Mark Grudzielanek (-.011). Grudzy had a hit and a run scored, he also had a successful sacrifice in four plate appearances.

Game 161, September 27: Cubs 7, Pirates 2 (88-73)

Matt Clement carried the baton across the finish line. Both the Cubs and the Astros played at night on the final Saturday of the season. Both teams played a game in less than two and a half hours. Matt Clement was the recipient of six runs in the first two innings and he pitched into the eighth inning before allowing a couple of runs (one earned).

Meanwhile, the Astros were losing to the Brewers for a second straight day, 5-2. And that was all she wrote. The Astros were suddenly two games back with only one to play. With that, the Cubs were National League Central champions for the first time. The Astros to this day hold the third-most NLC crowns, having won the division in ‘97, ‘98, ‘99 and ‘01. On the final weekend of the year, the Cubs stopped them from winning a fifth and final NLC crown. (The Cubs are now up to nine of them, trailing only the 10 of the Cardinals).

Three Heroes/Three Goats:

  • Superhero: Matt Clement (.164). Clement threw 7⅔ innings and allowed seven hits, two walks and two runs (one earned). He struck out six.
  • Hero: Ramon Martinez (.096). Ramon had a second-inning RBI single to give the Cubs a 2-0 lead. He would score later in the inning. That was his only hit in four at bats. But it was the third of three straight singles to ignite a five run second inning.
  • Sidekick: Sammy Sosa (.084). Sammy had a solo homer in the first inning to start the scoring. It was his only hit in four at bats. He struck out with two on during the second inning rally.
  • Billy Goat: Kenny Lofton (-.021). Lofton had one walk and three strike outs in four plate appearances. He scored a run.
  • Goat: Moises Alou (-.008). Alou had a solo homer and drew a walk in four plate appearances.
  • Kid: Dave Veres (.006). After Clement’s hitting is moved out, Veres gets the unlucky positive WPA Kid spot. He walked one in throwing a scoreless ninth. He only faced three batters due to a double play.

Game 162, September 28: Cubs 2, Pirates 3 (88-74)

The Cubs actually led this one 2-0, but most of the regulars played half the game or less. Sergio Mitre made the start and actually threw four shutout innings in what was just the second start of his career. The Pirates scored two in the fifth and one in the seventh to win this one. The Astros did finish out their season with an 8-5 win, but finished with 87 wins, one game out of first.

Three Heroes/Three Goats:

  • Superhero: Sergio Mitre (.220). Mitre allowed four hits and one walk in four scoreless innings. He struck out three.
  • Hero: Troy O’Leary (.145). Moises Alou got the day off and O’Leary played left field and had two hits in four at bats.
  • Sidekick: Alex Gonzalez (.108). Alex batted once and hit a solo homer before leaving this game.
  • Billy Goat: Tom Goodwin (-.249). Tom replaced Kenny Lofton after his first plate appearance. He was hitless in four at bats. The big culprit here was a strike out with the tying run on second to end the game.
  • Goat: Antonio Alfonseca (-.185). Antonio allowed two hits and a walk in one inning. He allowed two runs.
  • Kid: Ramon Martinez (-.175). Martinez played most of the game at third after Aramis Ramirez’ first at bat. Ramon was hitless in three at bats with two strikeouts. His big negative was a strikeout with a runner on first and one out in the eighth.

So there you have it. A look at the decisive final 10 games of the 2003 season and how the National League Central was won. The Giants had the second best record in the league and so they would win the right to face the wildcard Florida Marlins (in those days, the wildcard wouldn’t face their own division winner). The Cubs would face the Atlanta Braves who won the National League East and had the best record in the league.

The stage was set for a National League Championship series that would pit two teams that combined for 201 wins. That is, if things held to form. But as we all know, that’s not how it went. Having the best record in the league is no guarantee of anything. We’ll take a deeper look at that soon as we look at the playoffs.

Until then, thanks for reading and thanks for commenting.