I’ll never forget the 2003 playoffs. The way it ended is something that I might never recover from. I’ve posted about that before in this space. But there are some good memories from it, too. I was scheduled to go to Atlanta on a business trip, and lo and behold, the Cubs were going to be playing there the very week I would be in town. I took that as a sign that I was doing something right with my life.
Wearing my Sammy Sosa jersey–back when I would still do such a thing– while walking through the Atlanta airport was another good memory. So was getting ready for work on Monday, and hearing “Seats are still available” on the radio. It struck me as odd that the games weren’t sellouts, but Braves fans had gotten blase’ about simply making it to the playoffs by that point. And walking through the streets of Atlanta with thousands of fellow Cubs fans after the Cubs won Game one of that series is something I’ll always remember fondly.
But the best memory of all happened at the outdoor bar known as ‘Turner Beach” after the Cubs lost game two. A Braves fan was telling me that the Cubs stink and, instead of putting my head down and walking away as I might normally do, I decided to give it right back to him. I told the Braves fan that when the series returned to Chicago for Game three, his team would be facing Mark Prior, which meant they had no chance. I proceeded to make up Prior’s stat line for the game–something like 7 2/3 innings, three hits, two runs (at most), eight strikeouts, one walk–and then walked away, supremely confident that Prior would indeed deliver a stellar performance. And that’s exactly what he did.
The terrible irony of 2003 is that as much as Prior carried the team on his back–along with fellow starting pitcher Kerry Wood–he was the one on the mound when everything started to unravel during Game six. He didn’t give up all of the eight runs that cost his team the game and, eventually, a spot in the World Series, but the chain of events started while he was on the mound.
It didn’t have to be that way. The previous start that Prior made during that series was Game two, where he earned the victory but went much deeper into the game than he had to. It’s all hindsight now, and I know what they say about hindsight being 20/20, but Prior was badly mismanaged by manager Dusty Baker all season long, and it eventually caught up to the Cubs in Game six.
Mark Prior, over the course of his first full major league season in 2003, made 30 starts and threw an amazing 3,401 pitches for the regular season. That’s an average of 113 pitches per start, which once wasn’t a big deal, but now is the cause for some serious alarm. Not only can it lead to arm injuries for the pitchers, but it can also cause them to simply run out of gas, which is exactly what happened to Prior in Game six against the Marlins that terrible evening almost eight years ago.
Back to Game two for a moment. The Cubs jumped out to an 8-0 lead after three innings, and they extended their advantage to 11-0 after five innings. Starting pitchers must throw five innings to qualify for a win, and had Prior been removed from the game at that point, he would have thrown a mere 73 pitches. But, for reasons that only Dusty Baker can explain, Prior went out to the mound in the sixth inning (throwing 21 more pitches), the seventh inning (10 more pitches) and the eighth inning (12 more pitches before being taken out of the game).
Yes, Prior was young, nearly unhittable, and in possession of the best pitching mechanics anyone had ever seen, but throwing 43 additional pitches–on the heels of throwing an excessive number of pitches already in the regular season and the playoffs–didn’t serve too much purpose in a game that was so far out of the Marlins’ reach.
In Prior’s next start, the ill-fated Game 6, Prior threw 102 pitches through the first seven innings. For a team with an established setup man, that’s the time to take your starter out of the game. By turning it over to the bullpen, you get a fresh arm to face the hitters, and a look from the new pitcher that the batters on the other team haven’t seen before. Regardless of whether or not Prior was beginning to tire after seven innings, the top of the Marlins order–Juan Pierre, Luis Castillo, and Ivan Rodriguez–was coming up in the eighth inning, and they had each faced Prior three times already. I wonder if Dusty Baker considered that fact before he sent Prior out to start the eighth inning.
The foul ball episode, which happened while Luis Castillo was at bat, didn’t change a thing about the outcome of the game. By the time Ivan Rodriguez singled home the Marlins’ first run, Prior had thrown 22 more pitches and was seeing the game starting to slip away. His last, best hope to escape the jam he was in fell by the boards when Alex Gonzalez booted a bouncing ball that could have been a double play.
And yet the Cubs still had a two run lead. Baker let Prior face still another batter–future Cub Derrick Lee, and Prior’s 126th pitch of the night resulted in a game-tying, season-changing double to left field. Prior was finally removed from the game, but by then the damage had already been done. We know how it ended up, and it wasn’t pretty.
With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it seems that any of the Cubs relievers should have come in for the sixth inning of Game two against the Marlins, or the game should have been turned over to a setup reliever for the eighth inning of Game six. We won’t ever know how these moves might have worked out, but I promise they wouldn’t have been any worse than the results we did get.