Major League Baseball introduced the wild card with the hope of allowing more teams to compete for a playoff spot and therefore sustain fan interest.1 That goal was succeeding in spades in 2003, during one of the wildest of wild-card races in baseball history; as eight National League teams were within three games of each other when the Expos and the Philadelphia Phillies met at Olympic Stadium on August 26 in the second game of a four-game series.
These were challenging times for the Expos. Jeffrey Loria sold the team in early 2002 to Major League Baseball. MLB named Frank Robinson manager and Omar Minaya vice president and general manager. The 2003 Expos played 22 home games at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was a smaller ballpark, but the crowds in Puerto Rico outdrew the crowds in Montreal, helping the Expos draw over a million fans at home for the first time since 1998. Playing so many games in Puerto Rico also created a travel burden their competitors didn’t have to face.
The roof of Olympic Stadium was closed the night of August 26 as Montreal tried to stay in the NL race. The 12,509 fans in attendance saw the Expos do just that, and in spectacular fashion, overcoming deficits of 8-0 and 10-3 to win 14-10. With the win, Nos Amours extended their winning streak to three games and moved to within two games of the Phillies and the Florida Marlins for the lead in the wild-card race.2
The Phillies’ Ricky Ledee led off the game with a home run off the Expos’ Zach Day. Jimmy Rollins then doubled to the left-center gap and Bobby Abreu singled him in to make the score 2-0 before the first out was recorded. The Expos got out of the inning without any more damage and the score held at 2-0 until the fourth inning, when Philadelphia’s Mike Lieberthal led off with a single and moved to third on a double by Chase Utley. Pat Burrell walked, and was forced at second on a fielder’s choice by Tomas Perez that scored Lieberthal. Ledee drove in Utley and Perez and sent Zach Day to the showers with his second home run of the game. Eric Knott came in to pitch and quickly gave up back-to-back doubles to Rollins and Abreu, making the score 7-0. Lieberthal led off the fifth with a home run and the Phillies looked on their way to a blowout victory, leading 8-0.
The Phillies’ starter, Vincente Padilla, gave up only one hit through four innings and that batter was erased on an inning-ending double play in the fourth. The Expos got to him in the fifth. Vladimir Guerrero led off with a single. Wil Cordero singled to right, sending Guerrero to second. Todd Zeile, just signed as a free agent on August 20, singled to load the bases. Brian Schneider grounded out to first, scoring Guerrero. Endy Chavez grounded out to short, scoring Cordero. Ron Calloway, pinch-hitting for Knott, stroked a base hit to right, scoring Zeile. Brad Wilkerson lined out to end the inning but not before the Expos got on the board and closed the gap to 8-3.
A two-out rally by the Phillies in their half of the sixth made the score 10-3. After Ledee flied out to center and Rollins struck out swinging, Abreu walked, and Jim Thome doubled to the left-center gap, sending him to third. Lieberthal hit a single that scored Abreu; Guerrero made an error on the play and Thome scored.
The Expos scored one in the bottom of the sixth when Orlando Cabrera doubled, reached third on an error by Abreu in right, and scored on a sacrifice fly by Jose Vidro to make it 10-4. Padilla finished the inning, but was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the top of the seventh.
In the bottom of the inning, Zeile and Schneider greeted Phillies reliever Terry Adams with singles to put runners on first and second. Zeile moved to third on Chavez’s fielder’s choice, and scored on a wild pitch. Jose Macias, pinch-hitting for pitcher Joey Eischen, singled to left, sending Chavez to third. Dan Plesac relieved Adams and gave up an RBI single to Wilkerson. Mike Williams replaced Plesac and struck out Cabrera. Vidro doubled in Macias and Wilkerson, Guerrero was intentionally walked, and Cordero doubled in Vidro and Guerrero to tie this wild game at 10-10. Zeile then singled for the second time in the inning to drive in Cordero. Schneider flied out to center for the third out, but the Expos had taken an 11-10 lead.
The Phillies almost retook the lead in the eighth when Jim Thome was hit by a pitch and Lieberthal singled to left. Chase Utley sent a drive to deep right field that had the distance, but Vladimir Guerrero jumped and made a great catch at the wall to retire the side and end a potential Phillies rally before it got started.
“I thought it was gone,” said Vidro of Guerrero’s catch. “When he hit it, it was like, ‘Oh my God, no way!’ But Vlady made a hell of a play and that was it right there.”3
The Expos scored three more in the bottom of the eighth, highlighted by Cordero’s two-run double, to make the score 14-10. Luis Ayala, who came in to pitch for the Expos in the eighth, retired the Phillies three up, three down in the ninth to give the Expos the come-from-behind victory.
Expos manager Frank Robinson, speaking of Cordero’s two-run doubles in the seventh and eighth innings, said, “He’s done a terrific job the last two weeks or so coming up with big, big, big hits.”
“It’s unreal,” Robinson said. “You see it happening but you don’t believe it. That was a great win for this ballclub, this organization, and for the fans and for this city. It’s just a great win and it’s what we really need to do.”4
Robinson’s excitement in this comeback was also conveyed by some of the players. “How exciting was that game?” Vidro said. “We came back – unbelievable, one of the most exciting games I’ve played since I’ve been in the big leagues.”5
“The guys were energetic even when we were down 8-0, and then again 10-3,” said Zeile. “This team always felt like we had a chance to win and I think that’s why the result is what it is.”6
Two days before this game, the Marlins and Phillies were four games ahead of the Expos in the NL wild-card race. At of the end of the day, the Marlins had lost six of seven, the Phillies had lost four in a row, and the Expos had won three in a row to cut their wild-card deficit from four games to two games. That said, they were one of eight teams in a mix that also included the Astros, Diamondbacks, Cubs, Cardinals, and Dodgers.
Table 1. 2003 National League Wild-Card Standings after games played on August 26:
The Expos inched a bit closer, as they won the next two games for a four-game sweep and a tie for the wild-card lead. They couldn’t get any closer after that, as they lost 9 of their next 10 to fall out of the race. The Expos also suffered a huge blow on September 1 when MLB decided they could not afford to call up players from the minor leagues, as other teams could. They would have to make do with what they had. That decision took the heart out of the Expos. Fan attendance dropped off, and the Expos finished eight games out of the wild card.
“Baseball handed down a decree,” Minaya said. “It was a message to the players; it was a momentum killer.”8
This article appeared in “Au jeu/Play Ball: The 50 Greatest Games in the History of the Montreal Expos” (SABR, 2016), edited by Norm King. To read more articles from this book, click here.
In addition to the sources listed in the notes, the author consulted:
Box scores for this game can be found on baseball-reference.com, and retrosheet.org at:
1 The wild card was supposed to be implemented for the 1994 season, but due to the players strike that year, it was first used in 1995.
2 Nos Amours was a common nickname for the Expos. In French it means “our loves.”
3 “Late offensive flurry boosts Montreal,” ESPN.com, August 27, 2003.
7 Houston was leading the division, but was in a dogfight with Chicago and St. Louis for the top spot. Houston was in first place after this game and would have been in the playoffs had the season ended that night.
8 Les Carpenter, “Minaya Laid Foundation for Success,” Washington Post, July 4, 2005.