So here we are, a team that lost 95 games in 2002 turned things around and won 88 games, a nice feat in and of itself. One that likely should have ended either in a one-game playoff or with the Cubs a game out of the mix, but in actuality ended with a National League Central crown.
The prize? A match-up with the 101-win Atlanta Braves. Those 101 wins tied the Yankees for the most in baseball. The Cubs scored 724 runs in 2003. That was good for 20th (league average 766) while the Braves scored 907, second in baseball. The Cubs allowed 683 runs, good for 6th. The Braves allowed 740. So, the Cubs were actually the better pitching team, despite those of us who were around for that era in Braves history remembering them as the dominant pitching team in baseball. But the Braves had a significantly better offense.
This Braves team featured Javy Lopez who had a 43 HR, 109 RBI season with a .328/.378/.687 line. Gary Sheffield added a .330/.419/.604 (39/132) line of his own. Chipper Jones was his normal dependable self (27/106 with a .902 OPS). Andruw Jones (36/116) completed a fearsome outfield with Chipper and Sheffield. Marcus Giles had a fantastic season (.917 OPS) and Rafael Furcal stole 25 bases and scored 130 runs. This was a fearsome bunch.
Greg Maddux still led the rotation, making 36 starts with a 3.96 ERA at age 37. John Smoltz was a shutdown closer with a 1.12 ERA in 64⅓ innings of work and recorded 45 saves. But with Horacio Ramirez and Shane Reynolds at the back of the rotation, these just weren’t the same Braves many of us remember, at least pitching-wise.
Game 1, September 30: Cubs 4 at Braves 2 (1-0)
There was just one day off between the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs in those days. If you’ve been following along, you’ll recall the Cubs trailed heading into the final week of the season. Still, they had Kerry Wood available. He had pitched game 157 on September 23 and would have thrown game 162 or game 163 had it been necessary.
The Braves? They sent Russ Ortiz to the mound. I didn’t go digging for the archives on this, but this was a weird call. Greg Maddux was 9-7 with a 3.41 ERA at home that year (4.61 on the road) and had been 9-3 with a 3.03 in the second half (4.63 in the first). And he was 2-0 with a 2.77 against the Cubs. So I don’t get this call.
The Cubs got a lead-off single from Kenny Lofton. One out later he stole second. Then Sammy Sosa was intentionally walked (they must not have noticed how cold he had been the last half of September). But it worked as Moises Alou grounded into a double play. Wood issued walks in each of the first two innings but the game was scoreless into the third inning. The Cubs got two on in the top of the inning via a Wood single and Kenny Lofton reaching on an error. But Mark Grudzielanek and Sammy Sosa struck out.
Marcus Giles hit a home run in the bottom of the inning and it was 1-0. The Cubs sandwiched two singles around a walk to start the fourth. But Alex Gonzalez, Paul Bako and Wood went strikeout, strikeout, foul out to snuff the rally. The Cubs got a walk and a Sammy Sosa double play in the fifth. Wood issued another walk in the bottom of the inning, but it was 1-0 to the sixth.
Alou lead with a single and Aramis Ramirez followed with one of his own. Eric Karros followed with a third and for the second time in three innings the Cubs had loaded the bases with no outs. Dusty Baker turned to Randall Simon to pinch hit for Gonzalez but he struck out. Bako grounded to first, but the runners each moved up 90 feet, pushing across the tying run. That brought Wood to the plate. He hit a two-run double to give the Cubs a 3-1 lead. That chased Ortiz. The Braves brought in Ray King. King had made his major league debut with the Cubs in 1999. Kenny Lofton followed with a single the scored Wood and the Cubs were up 4-1.
Wood shut the Braves down in order in the sixth. The Cubs drew a couple of walks and Sammy Sosa stole a base in the top of the seventh, but they didn’t do any damage. Wood allowed a one-out single in the bottom of the seventh but a pair of strike outs helped get him through the inning. The Cubs drew another walk in the eighth, but Kenny Lofton hit into a rare double play to kill the threat.
In the bottom of the eighth, Kerry struck out Matt Franco but he reached in a dropped third strike. He struct out Furcal but then Mark DeRosa and Gary Sheffield drew back to back walks to lead the bases. Dusty turned to Mike Remlinger to face Chipper Jones. Remlinger got the ball on the ground that he’d been looking for, but the Cubs were only able to get the force at second for the second out. Kyle Farnsworth came in and walked Andruw Jones to re-load the bases. But then he got a ground ball from Javy Lopez to end the threat and preserve a 4-2 lead.
That’s where it was when Joe Borowski took over in the ninth. He struck out three of the four batters he faced and nailed down a save and gave the Cubs a 1-0 lead in the series.
Three Heroes/Three Goats:
- Superhero: Kerry Wood (.178). The hitter. He had two hits, drove in a run and scored another. I’m departing from the normal structure for the playoffs because the cumulative results of the playoffs don’t have a lot of value.
- Hero: Eric Karros (.173). Two hits and a run scored in four at bats.
- Sidekick: Aramis Ramirez (.142). A hit, two walks and a run scored in four plate appearances.
- Billy Goat: Randall Simon (-.104). Struck out with the bases loaded in his only at bat.
- Goat/Kid: Paul Bako/Alex Gonazlez (-.096). Paul did drive in a key run and also drew a walk but he also struck out twice and had that dropped third strike. Gonzalez only had two plate appearances and left for the Simon pinch hitting opportunity. He struck out once.
Game 2, October 1: Cubs 3 at Braves 5 (1-1)
The Cubs sent Carlos Zambrano to the hill to face Mike Hampton. I cannot recall why Greg Maddux did not throw in Atlanta to start this series. The Cubs jumped on Hampton right out of the gate. Kenny Lofton and Mark Grudzielanek drew back to back walks to start the game. Sammy Sosa then hit an RBI double. Moises Alou then hit a ground ball that scored a second run when Grudzy was safe at the plate. Sosa went back to second on the grounder. Aramis Ramirez followed with a single to load the bases. But then Mike Hampton turned his night around with three straight strike outs to end the rally.
The first two braves singled to put runners at first and third. Gary Sheffield then fouled out. Chipper Jones followed with a ground ball but the Cubs couldn’t turn two and the Braves cut the lead to 2-1 after one. Hampton struck out three more batters and the Braves went quietly in the second. The Cubs had two singles to start the third but Ramirez struck out and Eric Karros grounded into a double play.
The Braves were retired in order in the third. The Cubs drew a walk in the fourth but didn’t get a runner past first. With one out in the fourth, Chipper singled, Javy Lopez followed with a single to put runners at the corners. Andrew Jones then singled to tie the game at two. Zambrano got out of it though with the score tied.
The Cubs drew a pair of walks in the fifth but weren’t able to score. The Braves had a couple of singles in the fifth, including one from Mike Hampton, but couldn’t score. The Cubs went in order in the sixth.
Lopez lead off the bottom of the sixth with a single. He retired the next two hitters but then Vinny Castilla singled. Marcus Giles then grounded one through the infield to give the Braves a 3-2 lead. The Braves added another single and that was it for Zambrano. But Kyle Farnsworth got a strike out to strand the bases loaded.
The Cubs sandwiched two walks around a double play to start the seventh but did no damage. Farnsworth worked around a two-out single in the seventh to pitch a scoreless inning. In the top of the eighth, Eric Karros singled with one out and Doug Glanville pinch ran. Randall Simon followed with a pinch hit single. Tom Goodwin then hit a fly ball to center. Glanville tagged and scored but Simon was out trying to advance to second to end the inning. But the score was tied at 3-3.
In the bottom of the inning, Dave Veres was the choice in a tie game. He retired the ageless Julio Franco then walked Castilla. John Smoltz sacrificed pinch runner Jesse Garcia to second. The Cubs elected to intentionally walk Rafael Furcal and Mark DeRosa made them pay for it. He doubled and the speedy Furcal scored all of the way from first. De Rosa would later play for the Cubs on two pretty good Cub teams in 2007 and 2008.
Smoltz, who had allowed the run in the top of the eighth, was back out for the ninth. What had originally been a two-inning save opportunity was now looking to preserve a win for himself. He retired Troy O’leary, Kenny Lofton and Mark Grudzielanek in order and the series was moving back to Chicago tied at one game apiece.
Three Heroes/Three Goats:
- Superhero: Sammy Sosa (.220). Two hits and two walks in four plate appearances. He drove in a run.
- Hero: Randall Simon (.151). Had a hit in his only plate appearance. It was not ideal that he was cut down on the bases in the eighth inning, but the game plan against a dominant Smoltz was surely to be very aggressive because there wouldn’t be a lot of opportunity.
- Sidekick: Kyle Farnsworth (.111). Four very important outs while the Cubs tried to rally in this one.
- Billy Goat: Dave Veres (-.315). Dave Veres had a 4.68 ERA in the regular season. And he is the choice to throw the bottom of the eighth? It didn’t work out.
- Goat: Mark Grudzielanek (-.145). Mark had one walk and one run scored in five plate appearances. A double play in the seventh after a lead off walk lands him here.
- Kid: Eric Karros (-.137). He had one hit in four at bats. That helped the Cubs tie the game in the eighth. A strike out with the bases loaded in the first lands him here.
Game 3, October 3: Cubs 3, Braves 1 (2-1)
Greg Maddux versus Mark Prior. The future Hall of Famer versus the “future star.” This was an epic match-up on paper.
Prior walked two and struck out two in a scoreless first, including Javy Lopes with two on base. The Cubs got singles from Kenny Lofton and Mark Grudzielanek in the bottom of the inning. But then Sammy Sosa struck out and Moises Alou flied out to center. The runners advanced on a rare Maddux wild pitch. And then Randall Simon lined a two-run single to right. Aramis Ramirez followed with a single, but the Cubs would score no more.
Prior struggled with his control early and issued another walk but got a double play ball and escaped unscathed. The Cubs got a two-out single and stolen base from Lofton but stranded him there.
The Braves finally got their first hit with two outs in the third but that was it. Maddux retired the Cubs in order in the third. Prior issued yet another walk in the fourth but still held the Braves in check. The Cubs had Alex Gonzalez reach on an error but get caught stealing in their half of the fourth. They also got a two out walk, but that was it.
Prior finally had a perfect inning in the fifth. The Cubs had Sosa reach on an error with two outs in the fifth and that was followed by a single but once again Maddux pitched out of trouble. In the sixth, Prior hit Gary Sheffield (I always though Gary Sheffield was about the last guy in MLB I’d want to hit with a pitch). A couple of grounders and the Braves were retired in the sixth.
The Cubs went in order in the bottom of the sixth and then Prior also shut the Braves down in order in the seventh. Jamey Wright came in to start the seventh and set the Cubs down in order. The Braves started the eighth with a DeRosa double. Rafael Furcal advanced the runner with a ground out and then Marcus Giles drove in a run for the third consecutive game, this time with a sacrifice fly. But that was it for the Braves in the eighth.
In the bottom of the eight, Moises Alou had a one out single, stole second one out later and then scored on an Aramis Ramirez double off of reliever Kevin Gryboski. Mark Prior went back out for the ninth and retired all four batters he faced. Well, sort of. Javy Lopez reached on a dropped third strike with one out to prolong the inning. But Prior finished it out for the 2-1 series lead.
Three Heroes/Three Goats:
- Superhero: Mark Prior (.486). Two hits, four walks, one run. He struck out seven. Four walks is hard to classify as a masterpiece, but against a dynamic offense, this was an epic performance.
- Hero: Randall Simon (.099). Simon had one hit in four at bats, but it was a big one, driving in two.
- Sidekick: Aramis Ramirez (.062). Ramirez had two hits, including a double, and drove in a big insurance run.
- Billy Goat: Sammy Sosa (-.073). Hitless in four at bats with one strikeout.
- Goat: Alex Gonzalez (-.049). One walk in four plate appearances.
- Kid: Mark Prior (-.039). Hitless in three at bats. (Damian Miller would land here otherwise with one walk in four plate appearances).
Game 4, October 5: Cubs 4, Braves 6 (2-2)
No one said it would be easy. Matt Clement matched up against Braves’ game one starter Russ Ortiz. This is what happens when your team only really has three starters. Ortiz came back on short rest to start this one. Despite the Braves win, this one wasn’t great.
Clement set the Braves down in order in the top of the first. The Cubs had a walk and a single in the first but couldn’t push a run across. The Braves had two singles in the top of the second but the Cubs got out of it. The Cubs had a lead off single in the second but the runner only got as far as second.
The Braves got a lead off single and then a wild pitch to start the third. The lead off single was by Ortiz who was subsequently picked off second. Furcal stole second and Clement issued a walk but the game was tied at zero heading to the bottom of the third.
Ortiz retired the first two Cubs but then Sammy Sosa drew a walk and Moises Alou followed with a double that scored Sosa. The Braves answered quickly with a one out walk, a single and then when the Cubs couldn’t complete a double play in time, the run scored to tie the game. The Cubs had a single and a walk in their half of the fourth but didn’t score.
Furcal lead off the fifth with a single and then one out later Chipper Jones hit a two-run homer to give the Braves a 3-1 lead. One out later a walk and two singles by Julio Franco and Vinny Castilla tacked on a fourth run and that was it for Clement who was relieved by Antonio Alfonseca.
The Cubs had two singles in the fifth but a double play off the bat of Aramis Ramirez killed any hope of a rally. The Braves had a single off of Alfonseca and a walk off of Mike Remlinger who relieved him, but didn’t add on in the sixth.
Eric Karros led off the bottom of the sixth with a homer off Ortiz. Alex Gonzalez followed with a walk, but Doug Glanville pinch hit against reliever Ray King and grounded into a double play. Dave Veres and Kyle Farnsworth combined to throw a scoreless seventh (despite another hit off of Veres). Jamey Wright set the Cubs down in order in the seventh.
Mark Guthrie came in with one out in the eighth. He retired the first batter he faced but then walked Marcus Giles. Chipper Jones followed with his second two-run homer of the game.
In the bottom of the inning Eric Karros hit his second solo homer of the game against Will Cunnane. Juan Cruz threw a scoreless ninth and the Cubs trailed 6-3 heading to the bottom of the ninth.
Randall Simon had a pinch hit double to start the inning and Damian Miller followed with a double of his own and the Cubs had scored off of John Smoltz for the second time in the series. But then Smoltz settled down and retired the final three Cubs to preserve the win and tie the series at two. The teams would head back to Atlanta for a decisive game five.
Three Heroes/Three Goats:
- Superhero: Moises Alou (.177). Three hits and an RBI in four at bats.
- Hero: Eric Karros (.130). Karros gets the second spot for two solo homers, and three hits in four at bats.
- Sidekick: Damian Miller (.090). One hit and an RBI in two at bats.
- Billy Goat: Matt Clement (-.240). Matt allowed eight hits, four walks and four runs in 4 2⁄3 innings. He struck out three.
- Goat: Kenny Lofton (-.221). Kenny was hitless in five at bats and struck out once.
- Kid: Aramis Ramirez (-.185). Ramirez was hitless in four at bats and struck out once.
Game 5, October 5: Cubs 5 at Braves 1
Lucky number 5! Of course this was the fourth time in the divisional play era the Cubs made the playoffs, so down with numerology. The third time was not the charm. But, unlike the Cubs team we looked at last offseason, this one wouldn’t fail once it reached one game away from advancing... at least not yet.
Kerry Wood was the easy call for Dusty Baker. The Braves called on Mike Hampton. The Cubs jumped on Hampton right out of the gate for the second time in the series. This time, it was a Kenny Lofton double to get things started. Hampton recorded a strikeout but then uncorked a wild pitch. Hampton walked Sammy Sosa and then Moises Alou lined a single and the Cubs were up 1-0.
Wood allowed a two-out single in the bottom of the first but kept the Braves off of the board and then Alex Gonzalez hit a solo homer starting the second and it was 2-0. Wood issued a two-out walk in the second, but that was it for the Braves and it was 2-0 after two.
The Cubs had a single in the third and the Braves a double in the fourth, but it was 2-0 after both teams were retired in order in the fifth. In the sixth, Alou had a one out single and then Aramis Ramirez launched a two-run homer and finally, it looked like the Cubs would win their first playoff series since 1908.
But things are never that easy for the Cubs. Rafael Furcal walked to lead off the sixth and Marcus Giles followed with a single. Gary Sheffield then hit into a fielder’s choice giving the Braves their first run of the game. Wood then coaxed a double play ball off the bat of Chipper Jones and the Cubs lead 4-1 after six.
Wood worked around a two out double in the seventh. He also pitched around a one out single in the eighth and finished eight innings with just one run allowed. Then in the top of the ninth, Eric Karros reached on an error with one out and Alex Gonzalez followed with a single. After a Damian Miller strikeout, Tom Goodwin batted for Kerry Wood and doubled in a run.
That left the game in the hands of Joe Borowski. Joe retired Chipper Jones, Javy Lopez, and Andruw Jones in order to notch the save. The last two outs were by strikeout. Joe faced five of seven batters he faced in the series in saving the first and last games of the series.
Three Heroes/Three Goats:
- Superhero: Kerry Wood (.394). Eight innings, five hits, two walks, one run. Seven strikeouts.
- Hero: Alex Gonzalez (.084). Two hits, including a homer, in four at bats. One strikeout.
- Sidekick: Aramis Ramirez (.075). Ramirez had one hit, a two-run homer, in four at bats.
- Billy Goat: Eric Karros (-.064). Karros was hitless in four at bats and struck out once. But he did score that run in the ninth.
- Goat: Damian Miller (-.047). Damian was hitless in four at bats.
- Kid: Kerry Wood (-.038). Kerry was hitless in three at bats with a strikeout.
So there you have it. The Cubs won their first postseason series in 95 years. And they did it against a 101-win Braves team. History can leave us with stupid memories. It would be totally reasonable to remember the 2003 team for their hot September, for catching the Astros in the final week of the season and then clinching the division on the penultimate day of the season. The series win against the Braves was epic. And it was won behind the strong pitching of their two aces, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior.
In the other National League series, a 91-win Marlins team was upsetting the 100-win Giants team. The top two teams in the NL both lost their first round series and so it was that the Cubs, with just 88 wins, had home field advantage for the NLCS. The Cubs had won four of six against both the Marlins and Giants in the regular season, still this seemed like a match-up the Cubs could win. If you were a neutral baseball observer, the Cubs-Marlins series would be an epic, back and forth series. But of course, that’s now how most Cubs fans remember it.
Alas, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This one was about the first series win in the divisional era for the Cubs. It was epic and awesome and it doesn’t get remembered nearly fondly enough for that. Next time, we’ll look at that Marlins series.