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Cabrera vs. Clemens: How the Marlins’ young slugger shocked the Yankees’ ace in 2003

A 20-year old baby-faced assasin murdered a high fastball for one of the most incredible homers in the Marlins’ history, one that hurt the Yankees more than we realize

New York Yankees’ starter Roger Clemens wipes his forehead a Photo by Linda Cataffo/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Miguel Cabrera’s home run against Roger Clemens in the 2003 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Florida Marlins was a baptism of glory for the baby-faced slugger. It was a sign of what would come in the next decade: a generational talent and Triple Crown batter who’s already on the cusp of Hall of Fame worthiness.

The at-bat was in Game Four. A veteran Clemens looked to impose his will and intimidate the young phenom, who was 20 at the time. He was very close to hitting Cabrera in the head with the first pitch of the at-bat. He got Cabrera to a two-strike count and threw some nasty sinkers and splitters, but when nobody expected it, he caught a fastball high and away and sent it to the right field bleachers. Opposite-field home run. The Marlins were leading 2-0 in the first inning.

They won that ballgame 4-3 and never dropped another one in the series. The Yankees had lost 4-2 to the pesky Marlins.

While Cabrera didn’t have a particularly successful World Series (.167/.200/.292 with a home run and three RBI) he carried the Marlins in the NLCS (.333/.394/.633 with nine runs, three blasts and six RBI) and provided the thump Florida needed in October to win it all for the second time in seven seasons.

A stunning turn of events

After the exhausting back-and-forth affair between the Yankees and the Red Sox in the ALCS that year, I truly thought that the Marlins wouldn’t be an obstacle to the Bombers in their quest for the World Series title. That was my mistake, and that was the series that taught me not to underestimate any team.

If there was anybody who believed Cabrera wasn’t a special hitter, or that he wasn’t ready for the big show, that was the wake-up call, a go-ahead blast to put his team on top 2-0 in the first inning in the fourth game of the World Series. That dinger propelled a victory that leveled the Fall Classic 2-2. It’s impossible to prove, but maybe without that homer, the Marlins probably wouldn’t win that game an fall in a 3-1 hole. It would have been extremely difficult to win the series.

It’s not like Cabrera was a stranger. He was a top prospect, and while most 20-year-olds are struggling to make it in Double-A or the low minors, he was already the Marlins’ cleanup hitter.

That Yankees’ squad was something else. It had Derek Jeter and Hideki Matsui in their primes, Jason Giambi, Bernie Williams, Alfonso Soriano, four workhorses in the rotation and Mariano Rivera, among other stars.

The Marlins also had talented players, highlighted by the veterans Ivan Rodriguez, Jeff Conine and Mike Lowell, and the young blood: Brad Penny, Josh Beckett and Cabrera, plus Dontrelle Willis. However, they were clear underdogs, and they won. Kudos to them for that, but after beating the Red Sox in the ALCS, that was a cruel ending for the 2003 season for the Yankees.

A Hall of Fame career

We return to Cabrera. In that 2003 campaign, his rookie season, he hit .268 with 12 home runs and 62 RBI in 87 games and 314 at-bats. That was some decent production at 20 years old, and you know what came next.

From 2004 to 2016, he never hit lower than .290, and from 2004 to 2014, he never hit fewer than 25 home runs. He had a 10-season streak, from 2004 to 2014, driving in at least 100 runs. He was the league’s premier slugger for a while, until Mike Trout appeared.

He actually won the American League Triple Crown in 2012 with .330, 44 home runs and 139 RBI. He was the AL MVP in 2012 and 2013. As of right now, Cabrera has a .315 lifetime batting average, 2,815 hits, 477 homers and 1,694 RBI.

As for Clemens, he was 41 years old at the time of the at-bat. In fact, 2003 was the final season of his first stint with the Yankees, which lasted five years. He would go to the Houston Astros for three tremendou seasons (2004-2006) before returning to the Bombers in 2007 to finish his career.

That duel between Cabrera and Clemens wasn’t exactly between a young stud and a veteran saying goodbye, since the Rocket would keep playing for four additional years. But it was a shocking sports moment that signaled the birth of one generational talent in the batters’ box. He was here to stay, and the Yankees were among the first to suffer from it.