2003: When the Cubs Decked the Cards

By Chris Rewers on Monday, September 13, 2010

The rivalry between the Cubs and Cardinals is generally considered as one of the three best in the major leagues, placed on a pedestal alongside the Yankees-Red Sox and Dodgers-Giants antagonisms. But when it comes to late-season drama, Cubs-Cardinals ranks far behind the other two classic rivalries.

The Cubs and Cardinals have never met in a tiebreaker playoff nor have they opposed each other in the postseason. Rarely, even, has there been late-season drama. Most Septembers, the two teams are like two ships passing in the night.

Since the Cardinals franchise joined the National League in 1892, the teams have only finished 1-2 in the standings four times. The Cardinals edged the Cubs by two games to capture the NL pennant in 1930, the Cubs finished four games in front of St. Louis in 1935, the North Siders were three in front of the Redbirds in 1945, and the Cards claimed the NL Central crown by finishing 7.5 games in front of the Cubs last year.

They may not have finished 1-2 in the NL Central in 2003, but that season the teams treated their fans to one of the most intense September series in the rivalry's history.

The Cubs hosted the Cardinals at Wrigley Field for a five-game series Sept. 1-4. The Cards entered the season's final month leading the NL Central by one game over the second-place Houston Astros and 2.5 games over the third-place Cubs.

The Cubs were 69-66 and finished August by losing four out of their last five games. The previous week, the Cubs dropped two of three in St. Louis in a series that became the setting for Buzz Bissinger's Three Nights in August (2005, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). The Cardinals won the rubber game game of the series when Kerry Robinson led off the bottom of the ninth against Cubs reliever Mike Remlinger and homered to snap a 2-2 tie. Remlinger walked off the field with his head hanging while the Cardinals bounced up and down and pounded Robinson as he crossed home plate.

It was tough to watch.

As much as I found Bissinger's book interesting, I liked four days in September a great deal more.

It was a make-or-break late-season series for the Cubs and it would prove to be one of the few times in my life that they rose to the occasion. By capturing four of five from their archrivals, the Cubs began to make their dramatic charge that went well into October and nearly brought them to (gulp) the World Series.

Heroes? Mark Prior, Sammy Sosa, Moises Alou, Mark Grudzielanek, and Tony Womack - to name a few.

Late-inning drama? There was plenty.

Pennant race intensity? Four ejections and a prolonged profanity-laced exchange between the managers.

The teams combined for 36 runs and stranded 96 baserunners over 51 heart-pounding innings. And capped it off with two unforgettale one-run contests.

It was good stuff.

This crazy series got started late. The Labor Day opener on Sept. 1 was delayed for 4 hours, 17 minutes by rain. The game finally got underway at 5:37 p.m. under dreary, drizzly, 64-degree conditions with only a fraction of the announced crowd of 38,410 on hand.

Prior, who was then at the height of his powers, dominated the Cardinals that evening - winning his 14th game of the season and his sixth straight start in a 7-0 Cubs victory. Prior allowed just four singles and a Scott Rolen double over eight innings while striking out eight and walking three.

The Cubs broke open a scoreless tie in the fifth inning with six runs off St. Louis starter Woody Williams. Eric Karros, Ramon Martinez, Prior, and Kenny Lofton contributed RBI singles. Womack chipped in a run-scoring double and Damian Miller knocked in a run with a sacrifice fly.

Thanks to a 10-1 victory over Los Angeles, Houston pulled into a first-place tie with St. Louis. The Cubs pulled within 1.5 games back.

A night game was scheduled on Sept. 2, but a rainout earlier in the season enabled the Cubs to add a 12:05 p.m. makeup contest. I snapped up a pair of 400-level tickets shortly after tickets for the makeup game went on sale. I went with my brother, Ron, and we were late because my chronically tardy sibling did not pick me up from my Bridgeport home until 11:30. I hate those early 12:05 starts. It seems like that no matter how early I get out the door in the morning, I am always racing to make it to Wrigley Field in time for the first pitch.

On this occasion, we did not make it. By the time we found our places in Aisle 413, Row 7, Seats 1-2, the Cubs were batting in the bottom of the first. We settled in and witnessed almost five hours of rivetting action.

With Carlos Zambrano on the mound for the Cubs, the Cardinals scored once in the second on a Chris Widger two-out RBI single and again in the fourth on a Jim Edmonds .
home run.

The Cubs tied the game in the fifth against St. Louis starter Jason Simontacchi when Alex Gonzalez and Miller delivered back-to-back two-out RBI doubles.

With the wind gusting in from the northeast, the pitchers took over. After Simontacchi exited after the fifth, Cardinals relievers Cal Eldred, Mike DeJean, Jason Isringhausen, and Steve Kline combined for seven shutout innings. Zambrano allowed four hits over seven innings and then gave way to eight shutout, one-hit innings from relievers Kyle Farnsworth, Joe Borowski, Antonio Alfonseca, Remlinger, and Mark Guthrie.

Both teams squandered golden opportunities in the ninth.

Rolen reached first off Borowski to open the ninth when right fielder Sosa muffed his flyball and moved to second on a Fernando Vina sacrifice bunt. Edgar Renteria was intentionally walked and both runners moved up one base when pinch hitter Orlando Palmeiro grounded out to Borowski. But the Cards came up empty when So Taguchi was called out on strikes.

A pair of defensive plays by Plameiro, who stayed in the game to play left field, prevented the Cubs from claiming a walkoff win in the bottom half of the inning against DeJean. Alou led off with a single but he was thrown out at third by Palmeiro while trying to advance on a Lofton single. The Cubs loaded the bases with two outs before Martinez sent a drive to deep left. It sounded good off the bat and from my upper-deck perch I was certain that it would land in the bleachers. But the wind knocked it down and Palmeiro made a spectacular leaping catch against the wall to end the inning.

In the 14th, Vina led off with a double but that's where he stayed as Guthrie retired the next three hitters.

By the time the Cubs came to bat in the bottom of the 15th at 10 minutes before five, me and my brother knew that we were in hot water. We were supposed to be at a family dinner at six and it was obvious that we were going to be late. Our mother and spouses called asking us to please leave early. But do you think we ever considered doing so? Fat chance.

And our patience was rewarded when with one on and one out, Sosa homered into the left-field bleachers off former Cubs left-hander Jeff Fassero. Bedlam ensued at Wrigley Field as the portion of the 31,990 fans who remained for the entire 15 innings celebrated wildly while exiting the park. I never high-fived as many strangers as I did that evening as we returned to our car. Gosh, was it fun!

We made it to our engagement a little late and were forgiven by our mother and wives. Life was good.

"I got one pitch to hit, and that was everything," Sosa told reporters while the Wrigley Field staff scrambled to push out the day crowd before admitting the night game fans.

The Astros now sat atop the division, one-half game ahead of St. Louis and a full game in front of the Cubs.

The Cardinals slowed the Cubs Express in the nightcap when Matt Morris outdueled Kerry Wood in a 2-0 St. Louis victory.

Morris was twice brushed back by Wood, angering the Cardinals bench, especially Tony LaRussa. The heated rivalry between LaRussa and Dusty Baker had been simmering for years, but it reached critical mass during this series. The two managers were captured by televeision cameras on several occasions throughout the series exchanging pleasantries from their dugouts.

The Cubs' best scoring chance came in the seventh when they loaded the bases with two outs. Alou hit a line drive down the left-field line that replays appeared to show kick up chalk. Third-base umpire Justin Klemm, however, called it foul and Alou flied out to left to end the inning.

Alfonseca charged Klemm from the bullpen between innings and bumped the umpire. In the rhubarb that ensued, Alfonseca and Alou were ejected. Alfonseca was later suspended for seven games.

Houston, meanwhile, lost to Los Angeles to push the Cards back in front. The Astros were a half-game out and the Cubs 1.5 games off the pace.

The split doubleheader and the White Sox's home game that night against Boston combined to attract a Chicago record 95,223 fans. I felt privileged to be one of them.

It appeared that the worm had turned when the series resumed on Sept. 3. Cubs starter Matt Clement was not sharp and left in the sixth with the Cardinals ahead 2-0. The bases were loaded and two were out when Baker inexplicably brought in 21-year-old left-hander Felix Sanchez to make his major league debut. It was one of three big league appearances for Sanchez and it did not go well as J.D. Drew hit a grand slam to extend the St. Louis lead to 6-0.

But, with the wind gusting out to left, the Cubs cut the lead in half when Aramis Ramirez capped a three-run inning with a two-run homer off Fassero. The Cardinals tacked on another run, off Alfonseca, in the top of the seventh on a Renteria RBI single. The Cubs, though, answered with three more in the bottom half, off Russ Springer, when Alou hit a two-run homer and Gonzalez added a solo shot.

With one out and a runner aboard in the bottom of the eighth, LaRussa called upon Williams to make his only relief appearance of the season. It did not go well. Grudzielanek tied the game with a triple, and after Sosa popped out for the second out, Alou singled to cap a heroic 5-for-5 day and put the Cubs in front.

Borowski set the Cards down in order in the ninth. The Astros later beat the Dodgers 8-2 to again leap into first.

The series concluded on Sept. 4 with an entertaining see-saw affair. Home plate umpire Bill Hohn had a rough game and dealt with a constant steream of chirping from the Cubs dugout. Sosa was ejected in the third inning after arguing a called third strike and pitching coach Larry Rothschild was tossed in the fifth for arguing balls and strikes.

The Cardinals scored three times off Cubs starter Shawn Estes in the fifth to take a 5-3 lead, but the Cubs roared back in their half of the frame against Cardinals starter Brett Tomko. Grudzielanek tied the game with a two-run double and scored the go-ahead run on an Alou double.

A Mike Matheny single off Todd Wellemeyer enabled the Cardinals to tie the game in the seventh but the Cubs again went ahead in their next turn at bat, against DeJean, as Womack singled in Alou from second.

Remlinger, Farnsworth, and Borowski held the Cardinals in check over the next two innings and when Palmiero flew out to left to end the game, the Cubs had captured four of five in a must-win series.

"If you're not a fan and you watched this series, you became a fan," Womack said.

The Cubs had leap-frogged the Cardinals and moved into second place. The idle Astros led the Cubs by a half-game and the Cardinals by a full game.

St. Louis lost six of its next nine and wound up finishing third, three games out of first while the Cubs began a surge that saw them win 19 of their last 26. It took them until the final weekend of the regular season, but the Cubs claimed the NL Central championship, beating out the Astros by one game.

The Cubs certainly didn't go about winning the division the easy way, but it sure was fun.

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