Don’t overlook that first game

Reliving ballgames from the past is a bit like watching Titantic and hoping the boat won’t sink. The boat’s always going to hit the iceberg, and panic is always going to ensue, and that band will always keep playing with the chaos around them. Watch it again and again if you like, but those things are just always going to be there.

And so it is with me and the 2003 NLCS. The recent ESPN documentary, Catching Hell, was bad on many levels, but perhaps the cruelest bit of all was the very final scene were “Alou” finally makes the catch on that foul ball down the third base side. I don’t know what the point of that shot was, but life just doesn’t happen this way. You can’t make a credible documentary about a factual event and then change the final outcome. You might just as well show Joe Jackson coming out of the cornfield.

In any best-of-seven series, winning the first game is crucial in establishing momentum. For each of the ten years before 2003, the team that won Game one of the NLCS had then gone on to capture the pennant. Looking at how Game one was won and lost in 2003 is futile, but I’m about to do it anyway. Come on along if you’re so inclined.

The Florida Marlins were the wild card entry into the playoffs, and so the Cubs, as a division winner, got to host Game one of the series. Carlos Zambrano was pitching for the Cubs, and he was staked to an early four-run lead. Zambrano gave it all back and more in the third inning, and the game see-sawed all the way to the ninth inning.

In the bottom of the ninth, Sammy Sosa hit a dramatic two-run homer to tie the game and force extra innings. Joe Borowski pitched a scoreless tenth inning, and for the 11th inning, Dusty Baker turned to Mark Guthrie. Guthrie was a veteran middle reliever, in his second tour of duty with the Cubs.

The first batter Guthrie faced was Mike Lowell. Lowell had broken his wrist, and thus lost his starting third base job, in late August of that year. Coming off the bench as a pinch hitter was a new role for him, but one that he evidently took to quickly enough. Guthrie hung a 2-2 fastball, and Lowell sent it to the bleachers in centerfield, giving the Marlins a lead they would not relenquish.

After taking the loss in Game one, Guthrie came back and pitched one inning of mop-up duty in Game two, but he did not pitch again in the series. In fact, it was the final pitching outing of Guthrie’s career. No one can say whether this home run had any impact on Guthrie’s career after 2003, but clearly Dusty Baker had lost confidence in him. Otherwise, Guthrie might have pitched at some point in Games three through seven of the series.

The Cubs came back from the opening defeat to win the next three games, and they had the Marlins on the ropes until Josh Beckett shut them out on two hits in Game five. If the Cubs had captured Game one, it’s possible that Beckett wouldn’t have had another chance at the Cubs. The series would have then been over in four games.

Coulda, woulda, shoulda. It’s all conjecture, and none of it changes what actually happened. But it’s also worth remembering that plenty of things did happen in the series before the eighth inning of Game six, even though ESPN would rather fixate on Moises Alou and the foul ball he didn’t catch, at least not in real life.

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