Spring bowed to summer before summer submitted to autumn, and the most marvelous postseason in Baseball history postseason began.
In the American League, the 101 win Yankees, champions of the American League East, were matched with the determined Minnesota Twins, a team consumed with reaching the World Series after falling one step short against Anaheim a year prior.
In the other Divisional Series match up, Billy Beane, the brilliant architect of the low budget Oakland A’s, sought postseason vindication against the Boston Red Sox and their hotshot General manager Theo Epstein. Epstein had used Oakland’s intricate system of player evaluation to alter the culture of the Red Sox. It was an exceedingly interesting proposition, “Moneyball” operating with the benefit of a bottomless budget. The Red Sox’s front nine had all the earmarks of a Beane team: high on base percentage, below average defense, virtually nonexistent team speed.
The A’s had reached the postseason expressively on the strength of their starting pitching. Their big three, Zito, Hudson, and Mulder, were the backbone of a team that sometimes struggled on offense. Keith Foulke, the A’s closer, dominated to the tune of a 2.08 earned run average and 43 saves.
It was a difficult series to forecast. While the Yankees were picked unanimously to handle the Twins, the A’s and Red Sox appeared far more evenly matched. The Red Sox had the definite advantage on offense, but their bullpen, and pitching behind Pedro Martinez, was an imminent concern.
By the time it was over, and the preordained American League Championship Series was in place, baseball fans were left whip lashed by what had been an October’s worth of memories in one round.
In the National League, the Chicago Cubs stunned perpetual over dog Atlanta, while the Florida Marlins shocked the defending National League Champion San Francisco Giants, defeating them in four games.
The most anticlimactic of the Divisional Classics was the Yankees-Twins four game tilt. The Twins put a jolt into New York by swiping Game One of the Series with the flawless execution of basic fundamentals, attacking Bernie Williams’ diminishing range and tattered arm. It was all too reminiscent for Yankee fans: a young and hungry team prowling on the Yankees’ weaknesses, following the Angels’ blueprint.
But, just as they had exhibited in the immediate absence of Jeter, these Yankees would display great resiliency. After getting completely locked down by reliever turned ace Johan Santana in Game One, the Yankees found themselves at the mercy of Brad Radke in Game 2. Luckily for them, Andy Pettitte was equally impeccable, up to the task of staring down the dour Twins right-hander.
The Yankees would ride Pettitte into the late innings, finally solving Radke in the seventh, extending their precarious one run lead into a comfortable cushion. The biggest blow came from slumping Jason Giambi, a big-ticket free agent imported from Oakland in the winter of 2001, who had begun to symbolize the Yankees’ sudden postseason stagnancy in the era after Tino Martinez. Giambi ripped a two run RBI single off of LaTroy Hawkins to break the game open.
After the gut wrenching Game 2 victory, a loose Yankee team disassembled the Twins in the Metrodome with a calm, professional touch, triumphantly blasting Santana in the decisive Game Four.
The Yankees had conquered the Divisional Round. Their next opponent was yet to be decided.
The Oakland A’s hate the bunt, because most of the time, bunting entails the willful relinquishment of an out, poison within their strict OBP driven philosophy.
To the A’s, a bunt is seen as an unwarranted risk, which may not even offer a significant award.
However, in the 12th inning of Game One, in the ALDS, A’s catcher Ramon Hernandez saw a situation where the potential payoff was well worth any down payment on chance.
Bases loaded. Two out. Derek Lowe on the mound.
And Hernandez squared, soon enough that he could have ruined the element of surprise.
But the mere idea of Hernandez, a catcher, bunting with two outs and the bases loaded was so unimaginable, that even though Ramon exposed his intentions, the Red Sox had no chance to recognize the twist of fate.
Somewhere, Billy Beane must have flashed an ironic grin.
The A’s took Game One, on what would be their smartest play of the Series.
The Red Sox appeared in a daze during Game Two, zombies in the blinding California sunlight.
The hangover adversely affected Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball, which fluttered hittable for the duration of his truncated outing.
As Barry Zito suffocated the Red Sox with ease, it became apparent that Boston would fall behind 2-0 in the best of five Series.
If they were to have any chance, the Sox would need the Series to turn upside down at Fenway Park.
Something had to befall the Oakland A’s in the sixth inning of Game Three, a force of irrationality completely out of their control. For the odds are impossible that a team of their caliber could so thoroughly screw up a key facet of the game not once, but twice.
It can win, or lose games.
Mistakes on the bases hurt. Outs are stolen, a ransom for stupidity. For a team obsessed with extorting every single out of any given game, the A’s pay little heed to base running, perhaps because of its inherently intangible value. Base running could never be measured by a metric.
But it can kill a team.
And it might have killed the A’s 2003 season.
Sixth inning. Eric Byrnes goes for broke, rounding third base with the tying run, colliding with Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek, jarring the ball from his grasp. It was a great, physical baseball play, before Byrnes decided to forego touching home plate. It was truly incredible. Here was Byrnes, achingly close to providing the A’s a valuable run, and he gave it away, declined the invitation. Instead, his ankle slightly injured in the collision, Byrnes shoved Varitek, and began limping back to the A’s dugout.
He would eventually get there, but not before he was tagged out.
Same inning, and here was Miguel Tejada, rounding second base, comfortably on his way toward third, where his progress was obviously impeded by Bill Mueller. It was a definite case of obstruction.
Indignant, Tejada slowed down to a jog around third base, before finally walking toward home plate, believing that the run would be automatically awarded to the A’s.
He was tagged out a good thirty feet before getting there.
Ken Macha, A’s manager, separated his raging shortstop from the umpires, before obliging them with a five-minute rebuttal regarding the rules of obstruction.
According to the umps, because Tejada markedly slowed down before being interfered with by Mueller, the extra base awarded was in fact third, and that he proceeded to home, a dead duck, at his own risk.
And so it went for Oakland in Game three. Two precious runs left on the scoreboard. Players losing composure; manages giving dissertations.
And all the while, they were still right in the game.
It was the bottom of the 11th, the game tied at 1. The two runs carelessly thrown away by the A’s loom large, a shadow shrouding their every action in extra innings.
Rich Harden had taken over on the mound, a young flamethrower.
With one out, and Doug Mirabelli, the backup catcher singled to right. Trot Nixon pinch hit for Gabe Kapler.
From the dugout, Manny Ramirez pointed toward the centerfield fence, predicting a walk off Nixon homer.
Logically, of course, Nixon hit a line drive rope into the centerfield seats, allowing Boston to circle the wagons at least another day.
Game Four was another infuriating affair for the A’s; who seemed to be inventing new ways to lose in the postseason.
They had control of the game, despite Tim Hudson’s sudden departure in the first inning. Sidelined by a strained oblique, Hudson left stopping the Red Sox to ancient knuckle ball specialist Steve Sparks, who performed admirably in carrying the game to the A’s bullpen.
Oakland had squandered opportunities against John Burkett, but it seemed a reprieve was at hand, thanks to Jermaine Dye, who slugged a three run home run in the fifth to give Oakland a 4-2 lead.
Flash forward to the eighth, the score 4-3. Keith Foulke was on the mound for Oakland, attempting to close down the Red Sox’s season.
Oakland was six outs away.
David Ortiz had struggled mightily all Series long, beaten by fastballs in his kitchen. Naturally, with runners on first and third and two out, Foulke attempted to pound the slugger with inside heat. As Ortiz fouled off pitches, searching for one he could handle, A’s fans, impossible as it may have been for them to admit, were probably waiting for the other shoe to drop.
And it did, as Ortiz set off pandemonium, stroking a double well beyond the reach of Dye in right field, giving the Red Sox a 5-4 advantage.
That would finish Oakland in Game Four. Scott Williamson, revitalized by postseason pressure, shut the door on the A’s, and advanced the Series to Game Five.
The fallibility displayed by the A’s paled in comparison with the grittiness shown by the Sox, who stood one win away from proving that this team, and this season, could be different.
It would be Barry Zito dueling with Pedro Martinez, for the right to play for a Pennant.
Manny Ramirez lingered within the first base line, admiring the biggest home run of his career. It had been a hanging curveball, fat and juicy, and he obliterated it.
It was a three run shot, a nail in the coffin. The A’s now trailed the Red Sox and Pedro Martinez 4-1, in the sixth inning.
Martinez didn’t appear at the pinnacle of his powers, but could still induce outs strictly on guile and intelligence. And now, with a three run lead, he could freely tantalize and tease the fading A’s, exposing their weaknesses.
But, as suddenly as their season had seemingly evaporated, Oakland finally showed some fight, getting one run back in bottom half of the sixth.
The bottom of the ninth descended over the Oakland Coliseum. The A’s were down to their final three outs, facing a one run deficit against newly anointed Red Sox closer Scott Williamson. Williamson had replaced B.K. Kim as closer earlier in the Series, after the Korean sidewinder couldn’t seal the deal in Game One, compounding his fate by giving Red Sox fans the finger during on field introductions at Fenway for Game 3.
No, Kim never would be Mariano Rivera.
The game had become a classic. There had been a harrowing collision between Johnny Damon and Damien Jackson, centerfielder and second baseman, while the two pursued a dying quail off the bat of Jermaine Dye in the bottom of the seventh. Their heads literally rattled off each other, leaving Damon unconscious, carted off the field.
Dye had been thrown out at second base after a daring attempt to profit from the mayhem.
All told, the score remained 4-2 into the eighth, where the Red Sox remained idle, and the A’s continued creeping closer, notching another run.
Now, it came down to Williamson.
Scott Hatteberg led off the Oakland A’s ninth.
In Michael Lewis’ masterpiece “Moneyball”, an entire chapter was dedicated to journeyman catcher Scott Hatteberg, converted to first base by the A’s forward thinking front office for the 2002 season.
Hatteberg was an on base machine, his approach to hitting complex. He treated each trip to the plate as a gift, refusing to allow the pitcher dictate his strategy. Scott was a pest without speed, fouling off an endless stream two strike offerings, earning his way on base.
Despite his lesser talent, he was a hitter truly in the mold of Jason Giambi and Bobby Abreu, players who made patience an art form.
He was the perfect hitter for this situation. Leading off the ninth inning in a decisive playoff game, his team trailing by a run, Hatteberg wouldn’t bend to the pressure.
He bled a walk from Williamson.
Jose Guillen, a prodigiously talented, yet notoriously impatient hacker was next. Many in baseball circles expressed shock at Billy Beane’s acquisition of Guillen, sacrificing top prospect Aaron Harang for his services. Jose was the antithesis of all that Beane valued in a player. Talent didn’t equal production, and for all his promise, Guillen had only just burst on the scene with the Reds in the first half of 2003. The legitimacy of his ascension was readily questioned.
Would Guillen have the patience, would he allow himself to succeed in this situation?
He drew a walk from Williamson, who was removed without recording an out.
It wasn’t his game anymore.
From the bullpen strode Derek Lowe. Lowe, physically, was the complete package. He was a horse, capable of logging enough innings to carry a staff. His sinker was filthy, its sharp break confounding the American League in 2002. Lowe reaped the benefits, securing 21 wins.
The expectations were raised for 2003, and Lowe was a different pitcher. He’d seem to lose focus during games, almost bored by his brilliant stuff.
And he’d pay for it. Backed by the Red Sox offense, Lowe still won 17 games, but saw his ERA balloon to 4.47.
Many believed Lowe was far more focused when thrust into a save situation, without room for error.
In Game Five, he’d have no choice.
Lowe got it done. Ramon Hernandez would bunt again, but this time it was Ken Macha’s call, giving up an out to advance the runners to second and third.
It was a by the book move.
His next decision wasn’t.
Macha would pinch hit for established star Jermaine Dye, sending up hot hitting Adam Melhuse in place of the wounded right fielder. Dye had battled his body all season long, fighting through the pain of a glacially healing leg, shattered by a foul ball in the 2001 playoffs. The lingering malady had sapped his power and nearly ruined his career.
He painfully wrenched out a meager .172 average in 2003, while appearing in 65 games.
However, Dye had made his living in situations such as these, and had shown a flash of his prior form with what could have been a decisive three run homer in Game 4.
Adam Melhuse was having a scorching postseason, but injury or not, he was not Jermaine Dye.
Just as Scott Hatteberg’s poise isn’t interchangeable, neither was Dye’s big game experience.
A’s fans are still wondering what could have been, had Dye been rightfully given his opportunity to play hero.
Instead, Melhuse struck out looking, overmatched by both Derek Lowe, and the moment.
After a walk to Chris Singleton, Lowe finished it, catching Terrance Long looking with the bases loaded, and ending Oakland’s season.
The A’s had fallen, tortuously, in the playoffs once again. The defeat offered zero consolation. There were no moral victories.
In their shattered clubhouse, Billy Beane lost it, railing about the payroll disparity separating the two teams.
But on the field, they had been so close.
– Matt Waters