A week before the 1999 spring-training season was to begin, Mike Lowell, who just been traded to the Florida Marlins by the Yankees, was diagnosed with testicular cancer. While undergoing treatment, Lowell missed the first two months of the season, but when he returned to the field, he put together a solid campaign, hitting .253 in 87 games. Four years later, Lowell was considered to be one of the premier third basemen in the game. At one point, it was rumored that he would be dealt to the Chicago Cubs to fill their void at third, but no deal was made. In late August of 2003 he suffered a broken wrist when he was hit by a pitch from Hector Almonte of the Montreal Expos. The injury forced Lowell to miss 32 games. He wouldn’t swing a bat until late September. Still, Lowell found himself in a position to make his mark in one of the most entertaining games in postseason history.
Before the first pitch was tossed in the 2003 NLCS, many experts deemed the Chicago Cubs a favorite to capture their first NL pennant since 1945. With the golden arms of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior spearheading the charge, the Cubs took down the Atlanta Braves in the Division Series, their first postseason series victory since the 1908 World Series. With a stellar pitching staff leading the way, the Cubs gave their long-suffering fans hope that next year would be this year.
With all the national praise given to the Cubs’ flamethrowers, the Florida Marlins were no slouch either. Despite the heavily tilted odds in the Cubs’ favor, both teams were evenly matched. Both had dispatched 100-win teams in the NLDS. (The Marlins ended the San Francisco Giants’ run in four games. Both had veteran leadership in the dugout. Cubs manager Dusty Baker had been a three-time Manager of the Year recipient and the Marlins’ Jack McKeon, after succeeding Jeff Torborg in May with the team at 16-22, had led the Marlins on a 75-49 run that ended with a wild-card berth.
The first game of the 2003 National League Championship Series was played on Tuesday, October 7, before a crowd of 39,567 at Wrigley Field. The Indian summer conditions were conducive for a slugfest. The Cubs sent mercurial right-hander Carlos Zambrano (13-11, 3.11) to the mound, while the Marlins answered with flamethrower Josh Beckett (9-8, 3.04). Lowell was not in the starting lineup.
The Cubs battered Beckett in the first inning with a four-run tally. Kenny Lofton drew a leadoff walk and scored on Mark Grudzielanek’s triple. Sammy Sosa popped out to third, but Beckett then gave up a two-run homer to Moises Alou. Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez tripled to right and scored on a two-out double by Alex Gonzalez. With Cubs fans expecting a blowout, bedlam gripped the friendly confines and Wrigleyville as Cubs fans. But the Cubs’ fortunes changed in the Marlins’s third. Juan Pierre slapped a triple to right with one out. Zambrano walked Luis Castillo. Catcher and future Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez blasted a three-run homer to cut the Cubs’ lead to 4-3. Zambrano struck out Derrek Lee, but proceeded to give up home runs to Marlins rookie Miguel Cabrera and Juan Encarnacion. After being left for dead in the first, the Marlins had a 5-4 lead.
“We got up quick and I think with the crowd and everything else, a lot of people thought, ‘Oh, we’re going to roll over these guys,’” Cubs reliever Mike Remlinger said. “That’s not the case. This is a really good team, and we’ve said that, and I don’t think a lot of people really believed it.”1
The Marlins made it 6-4 in the sixth inning on Jeff Conine’s sacrifice fly, but the Cubs tied the game in the bottom of the inning when Randall Simon doubled to right and scored on a two-run home run by Alex Gonzalez.
In the top of the ninth inning, Todd Hollandsworth doubled to center with one out. Juan Pierre drew a walk and Castillo reached on an error by Grudzielanek. With the bases loaded, Ivan Rodriguez continued his hot streak by lining a single to right off Cubs closer Joe Borowski, giving the Marlins an 8-6 lead. In the bottom of the ninth, the Marlins sent their closer, Ugueth Urbina, to the mound to preserve the victory. Urbina got leadoff batter Damian Miller on a groundout, but Lofton doubled to right. Grudzielanek grounded out for the second out. Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa pulled his team from the brink of defeat by crushing a towering blast that tied the game at 8-8.
After Urbina retired the side in the 10th, Cubs manager Baker sent left-hander Mark Guthrie to the mound to face Lowell, who was pinch-hitting for Urbina in the top of the 11th. It was Lowell’s first pinch-hitting appearance of the season. And on a 3-and-2 pitch, Lowell homered to give the Marlins a 9-8 lead. It was sweet redemption for Lowell. In the bottom of the inning, Braden Looper retired the Cubs in order to preserve the 9-8 victory and a 1-0 series lead for the Marlins.
Both clubs were known for their solid pitching, but this wild and wacky contest featured seven home runs, six doubles, and four triples. Sosa’s heroics were overshadowed by what appeared to be a gross error on Baker’s part sending Guthrie to the mound to face Lowell. Baker’s response: “I anticipated they would bring in Lowell. At that point, I was down to three pitchers. Lenny Harris hits (Dave) Veres good, hits Alf [Antonio Alfonseca] good. I took my shot with Lowell. … Guthrie hung a pitch and [Lowell] didn’t miss it.”2
Although the Cubs lost the home-field advantage by losing, they were still considered the odds-on favorite to capture the pennant, but they firmly understood that the Marlins weren’t to be taken lightly.
“The first couple innings, we thought that was it,” Sosa said. “That was the game right there. But I’ll tell you something — the Marlins showed me something today. They don’t give up.”3
As for Lowell, he said of his blow, “I knew I hit it well. I was watching Lofton and he was getting ready to jump. But I don’t think he’s Superman and he couldn’t jump over the basket [at the top of the wall].”4
“Today was a good day to hit,” Lowell said. “The ball was carrying well.”5
With Mark Prior heading to the mound for Game Two, the Cubs were confident that they could even up the series. But the result of Game One was a reminder that the Cubs’ coronation was far from certain.
“If this is any indication of how it’s going to be, you’re going to be on the edge of your seat the whole time,” Cubs closer Borowski said.6
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, I consulted Baseball-reference.com, and retrosheet.org.
1 Paul Sullivan, “Highs, Lowell: Cubs Lose Thriller,” Chicago Tribune, October 8, 2003: 3.
2 Phil Rogers, “Baker’s Managerial Magic Vanishes for a Spell,” Chicago Tribune, October 8, 2003: 3.
4 John Mullin, “Catcher Extraordinaire,” Chicago Tribune, October 8, 2003: 7. The “basket” was a chain-link structure installed along the top of Wrigley Field’s ivy-covered red brick wall in 1970 to keep fans from jumping onto the field.