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The Red Sox’s 2003 playoff run was wild all the way to its abrupt end

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Walkoffs, rallies, close calls and heartache. The Red Sox’s postseason journey in 2003 had everything but a satisfying conclusion.

Mirabelli scores winning run Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

It has been nearly 17 years since the Boston Red Sox lost game seven of the 2003 American League Championship Series. During that time I have rarely, if ever, revisited the Red Sox’s playoff run from that year. I actively avoid replays of Aaron Boone’s walk-off home run and I’ve treated Grady Little’s name like Tom Riddle’s alias.

However, with all that forgetting, a lot of really great moments have fallen by the wayside. The Red Sox were a 95-win team in 2003 and they came as close as possible to the World Series as you can get without actually getting there. The playoff ride that brought them to the eventual disaster in game seven of the ALCS was a wild one and filled with plenty of fun moments. If the Red Sox had managed to vanquish the Yankees that year, perhaps 2003 would be the mystical year we all remember instead of 2004.

So, now that I’ve had 17 years of separation and four World Series titles to help wash away the pain of 2003, I thought it would be cathartic to really go back and relive the Red Sox’s postseason march of 2003. Let’s all hop aboard.

Before we dig into the playoffs themselves, let’s bring a little bit of context to the table. The Red Sox went 95-67 during the regular season, which is a pretty stellar record, but wasn’t enough to win the AL East. After an 18-9 start, the Red Sox had a losing record in May and ultimately tasted first place for the last time in early June. They spent the rest of the summer looking up at the Yankees, who tied with the Atlanta Braves for the best record in baseball (101-61). Luckily, the Red Sox did enough to fend off the Seattle Mariners and earn the AL Wild Card and a matchup with the Oakland A’s in the ALDS.

In terms of the actual roster, there were a lot of players who would hoist the trophy in 2004 on the Red Sox in 2003, but some of the key members who didn’t get that catharsis included Nomar Garciaparra, Todd Walker, John Burkett and Casey Fossum. In terms of standouts, Garciaparra joined Manny Ramirez and Jason Varitek as All-Star reserves, Pedro Martinez was magnificent in 29 starts, Bill Mueller won the AL batting title and David Ortiz came in fifth in AL MVP voting in his first season in Boston.

Of course, the Red Sox had a really difficult task when it came to the ALDS. Oakland went 96-66 and won the AL West in 2003. This was the year Moneyball was released, but Oakland had plenty of big-name stars of its own. Eric Chavez, 2002 AL MVP Miguel Tejada and All-Star reserve Ramon Hernandez held down the middle of the order while Tim Hudson, 2002 Cy Young winner Barry Zito and Mark Mulder formed a trio of aces at the top of the starting rotation. Oh, and don’t forget All Star closer Keith Foulke. The Red Sox certainly didn’t when they went shopping in the offseason.

In the first two games of the series, the Red Sox seemed to bend to Oakland’s star power, falling behind 2-0 after a 5-4 loss in extra innings in game one and a 5-1 defeat in game two.

It was a disheartening start, especially since game one was in Boston’s grasp. Walker went 4-for-5 with two home runs and three RBI in the opener of the series and powered the Red Sox to a 4-3 lead entering the bottom of the ninth inning. Unfortunately, Byung-Hyun Kim let two runners reach base before Alan Embree allowed a game-tying single. A few innings later, Derek Lowe surrendered the game-winning run in the bottom of the 12th.

Game two was much less suspenseful, as the A’s tagged Tim Wakefield for five runs in the second inning and coasted to victory.

Facing a 2-0 deficit, the Red Sox seemed on their way to an early exit, but they bounced back in a major way. It began in game three. The Sox returned to Fenway Park for this game and fans witnessed a pitching duel between Lowe and Oakland’s Ted Lilly. That’s right, just days after allowing the winning run in game two, Lowe was out there on the mound as a starter. Any fatigue he felt didn’t show, as he allowed just one unearned run across seven innings. The only problem was Lilly produced an identical line. The score remained tied at 1-1 until the bottom of the 11th inning when Trot Nixon hammered a pitch over the center field wall.

This was a highlight in an incredibly strong season from Nixon, who slashed an incredible .306/.396/.578 with a career-high OPS+ of 148 in 2003.

Game four kept the high octane feeling going and was really the beginning of Ortiz’s journey as a postseason legend, as he served up a two-run double off of Foulke in the bottom of the eighth to put the Red Sox ahead 5-4. That lead held thanks to a clean ninth from Scott Williamson.

To finish the series comeback, the Red Sox had to return to Oakland and they put Martinez on the mound to close things out. He had a solid outing (seven innings, three earned runs, six strikeouts), but it was Ramirez and Lowe who really played the hero roles. Ramirez hit a three-run home run during a four-run sixth and Lowe danced out of danger after entering as a reliever in the ninth with runners on first and second and no outs. His strikeout of Adam Melhuse after the runners advanced to second and third following a sacrifice bunt provided the largest swing in win probability added in the entire game (30 percent). But that strikeout was followed by a walk of Chris Singleton to load the bases before Lowe struck out Terrence Long to end the game.

There was a truly frightening moment earlier in the game as well, as infielder Damian Jackson and outfielder Johnny Damon ran into each other going after a fly ball into no man’s land in the seventh inning.

Thankfully, even though Damon had to be taken off in a stretcher, both players were able to suit up and play in the ALCS, although Damon sat out the first two games.

After such an epic series win against Oakland, the Red Sox were in for an even more difficult challenge in the aforementioned ALCS. As we all know, the Yankees were the opponent in that series, as they vanquished the Minnesota Twins in four games in the ALDS.

As with many Yankees teams of the early 2000s, this was a star-studded roster that dominated all season. There were veterans like Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina and Roger Clemens as well as newer stars like Alfonso Soriano and Hideki Matsui. In fact, this was Matsui’s first season with the team. Soriano, Matsui and Posada were all All-Star starters while Clemens was on the roster and Jason Giambi was a reserve and a participant in the Home Run Derby.

The Yankees may have won more than 100 games in 2003, but the Red Sox stuck right with them in head-to-head matchups, with Boston going 9-10 against their rivals. The ALCS itself would match that intensity, although things started slowly before reaching a boiling point and the eventual climax.

The Red Sox scored the first five runs of game one and claimed a 5-2 victory behind a two-run home run from Ortiz, a four-hit game from Ramirez and a solid starting effort from Wakefield. The Yankees responded with a 6-2 win in game two as Pettitte pitched well, Nick Johnson went yard, and Williams and Giambi both had multi-hit games.

You could argue that game three was most memorable game of the series and that includes game seven, but that had less to do with the actual game and more to do with the drama outside of it. This was the game in which the benches of the two teams emptied, leading to the infamous moment when Martinez threw Don Zimmer to the ground.

The Yankees ultimately won the game 4-3, but it was clear that these two teams were not just playing the part of rivals for the viewing public. There was real animosity between them.

Wakefield pitched brilliantly once again in game four, striking out eight and allowing one run across seven innings. Walker hit his fifth home run of the postseason and Nixon added one as well, helping to power a 3-2 win for the Sox. You read that right. Walker had five home runs during this postseason. If things had gone differently in 2003, maybe he would hold the type of place Mark Bellhorn currently occupies in our collective hearts.

Ramirez homered in game five, but that didn’t make enough of a dent as David Wells led the Yankees to a 4-2 victory, putting the Red Sox on the precipice of elimination. They would fend off their eventual doom in game six, however, rallying from a 6-4 deficit in the later innings to take a 9-6 win. This was a back and forth contest, with the two teams trading leads before Boston pulled ahead for good in the seventh following a bases loaded walk to Damon. Nixon then launched a two-run home run to cushion the lead in the ninth.

With three wins apiece, the Red Sox and Yankees got set for a final battle. The opening salvos favored the Red Sox, including another two-run home run from Nixon in the top of the second. Like Walker, we might remember Nixon’s career — or at least his 2003 season — differently if the Red Sox won this game. Unfortunately, despite claiming a 4-0 lead at one point and despite Martinez dealing for the first seven innings and despite holding a 94 percent win expectancy with one out in the eighth inning, the Red Sox collapsed. Martinez was left in too long, leading to a back-breaking double from Posada that plated two runs and tied the score. Then the two teams traded scoreless innings until Boone stepped to the plate in the 11th and you know the rest.

Plenty has been written about that home run as well as Little’s decision to leave Martinez in, the Red Sox/Yankees brawl and much more from 2003, but because of how it ended for the Red Sox, the lasting image from that season is Boone’s home run. That means some of the key players and moments from the rest of what was a wild and oftentimes incredibly fun playoff run have been forgotten.