2003 was a rarity in New York Yankees history--an incredibly memorable season that did not culminate in a World Series championship. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Chris Chambliss's walk-off homer to send the Yankees to their first World Series in 12 years was the last victory of their season since they were swept in the Fall Classic. The '01 squad put on arguably the greatest three-game exhibition ever witnessed at Yankee Stadium, but since they could not win in Arizona, it was also a loss. Even though the Yanks of '03 also dropped the ball in the World Series, the road to the pennant was about as satisfying as any in the team's history.
After a shocking elimination at the hands of the upstart Anaheim Angels in '02, their first season without a World Series appearance in five years, the Yankees sought to make it back to the Fall Classic. The offense was about as strong as it was the previous season, and the starting pitching staff come playoff time featured a menacing veteran quartet in Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina, and David Wells. Their trusted catcher Jorge Posada had the most acclaimed season of his career, as he finished third in AL MVP voting and became the first Yankee backstop since Hall of Famer Yogi Berra to hit 30 homers in a season. The Yankees romped to 101 wins and their sixth straight AL East division title, but the rival Boston Red Sox played them tough all year long.
Eventually, the season came down to Yankees vs. Red Sox in the ALCS when the Yankees dismissed the Minnesota Twins in a four-game set and the Wild Card Red Sox rallied from down 0-2 in their series to win three in a row against the ALDS-allergic Oakland Athletics (just as the Yanks had down two years prior). The Yankees finished six games ahead of the Red Sox in the regular season, but they only barely won the season series against Boston, 10-9. Sure enough, the series was a back-and-forth affair, and it came down to a decisive Game 7 at Yankee Stadium.
Boston ace/Yankee nemesis Pedro Martinez started against Clemens. After seven innings, the outlook was bleak for the Bronx Bombers, as they had managed only two Jason Giambi solo homers against Pedro. Meanwhile, the Red Sox knocked Clemens out of the game early and held a 5-2 lead despite three innings of stellar relief from Mike Mussina in the first bullpen outing of his career. Pedro returned to the mound for the eighth inning and induced a pop-up from Nick Johnson. Boston was five outs away from their first trip to the World Series in 17 years and a chance to finally end their 85-year title drought. Then, this happened:
Phew! That escalated quickly! Derek Jeter doubled thanks to a Trot Nixon misplay in right field, Bernie Williams singled him in, and after a mound conference, Boston manager Grady Little infamously decided to stick with his starter. Little had a southpaw ready in the bullpen to face lefty Hideki Matsui next, but he wanted Pedro out there. It was a decision begging to be second-guessed with Pedro waning after 100 pitches, and Matsui made it hurt with a sharp double down the right field line. The tying run was suddenly in scoring position for Posada. He was always a miserable hitter against Pedro (.203 in his career), but this time, he blooped a hit into no-man's land right in the middle of Todd Walker, Nomar Garciaparra, and Johnny Damon. The game was tied, and Pedro finally exited.
Relief ace Mariano Rivera kept the Red Sox off the board with a masterful three-inning performance, the longest Mo had spent on a mound in one game since since 1996. The Yankee bullpen was terrific--in eight combined innings of relief, they allowed only five hits and one run. In extra innings a little while later, Trade Deadline acquisition and then-slumping third baseman Aaron Boone stepped to the dish for the first time that night. He had been benched in this pivotal game due to a dismal 5-for-37 skid in the playoffs. No one was really expecting much from him at the moment, especially not against knuckleballing reliever Tim Wakefield, who had dominated the Yankees in the series to that point. If the Red Sox won, he probably would have been named ALCS MVP for his two victorious starts. For as deceptive as his knuckler was however, there is a reason it is regarded as such a hazardous pitch. When it's working well, it can dance all over the plate and completely baffle hitters. When it doesn't and simply stays flat...
Series over. The Yankees were AL champions, and memories were made that will never fade.