Monday, June 20, 2011

The 2003 World Series That Should Have Been

The Yankees should have played the Chicago Cubs in the 2003 World Series. Alas, things happened, and it was the Yankees losing to the Florida Marlins in a Series that went off the rails in Game 4 thanks to Joe Torre's hunches picking a fine time to stop working, and the Series was spoiled by a home run hit by the Marlins' Alex Gonzalez (not to be confused with the Alex Gonzalez whose error at shortstop paved the way for the Cubs' collapse in Game 6 of the NLCS) given up by... I don't even want to type the guy's name.

On Friday afternoon, the Yanks began a series at Wrigley Field that had the Cubs' 3 highest regular-season attendances since 1938, a time when fire laws weren't as strict (even in Chicago, the American city most known for suffering a fire) and standing-room crowds could be a lot higher than listed seating capacity.

The Cubs are the only team in Major League Baseball that regularly plays Friday home games in daylight, a legacy of the days from 1948 to 1988 when Wrigley was the only MLB park that still didn't have lights. Freddy Garcia (5-6) was a little shaky early, and that was enough for Doug Davis to get his first win of the season (1-5) -- again, the Yankees struggling against a pitcher they'd never seen before -- and for Carlos Marmol to get his 14th save.

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Three things, at least since the start of the Joe Torre years, have made the Yankees struggle: A young starting pitcher they've never seen before, the Fox Saturday Game of the Week, and ESPN Sunday Night Baseball. And, in this series, they had to face all three. (Well, one other thing has made the Yankees struggle: Their unwillingness to punish the fat lying cheating bastard David Ortiz for his steroid-induced home runs.)

The Saturday Fox game was much better for the Pinstripes. Joe Buck and Tim McCarver, the Yankee Haters, were in the house, but since they were also St. Louis Cardinals, naturally, they also hate the Cubs. But McCarver said he'd never seen such a great atmosphere at Wrigley. And there was a great atmosphere, as it sounded about half-and-half, Yankee Fans and Cub fans, and things appeared to remain civil.

The Yanks took a 2-0 lead in the top of the 3rd, but the Cubs tied it in the bottom of the 4th on a home run by Carlos Pena. After this blip, "Good A.J." took over, Burnett (7-5) outdueling possible Yankee trade target -- and one of those blasted, or should I say insufficiently blasted, 2003 Marlins -- Ryan Dempster(5-6, ERA 5.46 in the pitchers-hitting NL, maybe he shouldn't be a target).

The Yanks scored single runs in the 6th (sacrifice fly by Curtis Granderson) and the 9th (double by Eduardo Nunez), and a big play came in the bottom of the 6th, when a perfect Brett Gardner throw off a fly out by Geovany Soto cut Pena down at the plate. He crashed into Russell Martin, but Martin, already battling injury, channeled his inner Thurman Munson and not only held onto the ball, but then held the ball out to show the runner how he'd failed, rubbing it in, and well he should: It was not a dirty play, but it was intended to intimidate. Right, the Chicago Cubs intimidating the New York Yankees?

There was a scare in the bottom of the 9th when Reed Johnson homered off Mariano Rivera, and how big did that extra run, and the run that didn't score when Martin held onto the ball, look then? But Mo settled down, and got his 17th save. Yankees 4, Cubs 3.

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Last night was the series in a nutshell. For the first time in his career, Brett Gardner led off a game with a home run, off Cub starter Randy Wells. But the Cubs tied it in the bottom of the 1st and took a 4-1 lead in the bottom of the 3rd, thanks to another reminder of the 2003 World Series, Alfonso Soriano, who did as much as Jeff Fucking Weaver to ruin it with his constant strikeouts. This time, he took CC Sabathia deep. The wind had been blowing in at Wrigley, but not this time.

CC (9-4) shook this off and was strong until he was relieved. The Yanks scored 2 in the 4th and another in the 6th to tie it. In the 8th, Nick Swisher fully exited his slump by getting his 3rd hit, a 3-run homer off Sean Marshall (3-2). A triple by Granderson and back-to-back doubles by Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez made the final score 10-4 in favor of the Yankees.

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So the Yankees take 2 out of 3 at Wrigley Field, and move on to Cincinnati to face the Reds. Although there have been Interleague series with the Reds, this is the first time both teams have been good this late in the season or later since the 1976 World Series, which the Reds swept and clinched at the old Yankee Stadium. Fair enough, I suppose: The Yanks swept the Reds in 1939 and won in 5 in 1961, both times clinching at their old ballpark, Crosley Field.

Managing the Reds in their revival (NL Central Champions last season) is yet another reminder of the 2003 postseason, the man who was then the Cubs' manager, Dusty Baker. Dusty is really good at getting not-so-good teams into contention, even the Playoffs. But he can't quite get them all the way.

The Yankees remain a game and a half, one in the loss column, behind the Boston Red Sox. The Tampa Bay Rays are 4 and a half (5) back, the Toronto Blue Jays 7 and a half (8), and the Baltimore Orioles 10 (9).

If the current MLB standings hold to the end of the regular season, the Playoffs would be as follows, with the team that would have home-field advantage listed first: Boston vs. Texas, Cleveland vs. Yankees, Philadelphia vs. either Atlanta or the NL Central loser between Milwaukee and St. Louis (currently all tied), and the Milwaukee or St. Louis, whoever wins that Division, vs. San Francisco.

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Also encouraging: The injury-rehabbing Phil Hughes went 4 1/3 innings, giving up one run on three hits with seven strikeouts, in Sunday night's appearance for the Staten Island Yankees. He was consistently throwing fastballs at 93 miles an hour, up from his pain-induced high 80s from early this season.

In other words, the other numbers may not mean much -- after all, this was short-season A-ball -- but speed and control don't change depending on the quality of the opponent. He'll start over the weekend for the Double-A Trenton Thunder.

Hughes is on his way back. CC is one of the best horses in baseball. Good A.J. is in the house. Ivan Nova (who pitches tonight against the Reds) has gotten the job done. Garcia has been all right. Bartolo Colon will return from injury. Brian Gordon had a nice first start for us.

Cliff Who?

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