It's hard to believe, but today marks the 10th anniversary of the Aaron Boone game. That's incredible to me because it doesn't feel that long ago at all, even though the franchise has dramatically changed since then. Derek Jeter had just been named captain in June. Brian Cashman was GM but had far less control over the organization than he does now. George Steinbrenner was arguably in his last year of full functionality as the Yankees' owner prior his fainting at friend Otto Graham's funeral in December. Alfonso Soriano and Roger Clemens were ending their first stints with the team. Alex Rodriguez was still on the Rangers. Hell, Raul Mondesi played 98 games for the '03 Yankees, and his forgettable calendar year with the Yankees seems like an age ago. Even Jesse Orosco, who had last appeared on a team that went to the World Series 15 years prior pitched 15 games on this team, and he's several years older than the president.
Of course, what is most remembered about the 2003 Yankees is this lil' ol' play:
Boone's blast put a stunning cap on perhaps the most competitive seven-game series the Yankees have ever played in their long history. That classic Game 7 went 11 innings though, and Boone didn't even start the game. So much had to line up exactly as it did in that game for the Yankees to tie it off Pedro in the eighth with assistance from Boston manager Grady Little's bullpen neglect. and for Boone to even have that opportunity. Some important plays that did so can understandably appear small in retrospective.
Most people recall that Clemens got bombed in this game, which was thought to have possibly been his final career start if the Yankees lost. Until late in the game, it looked like Clemens's career was going to end in embarrassment, as both Trot Nixon and Kevin Millar took him deep, and he was forced from the mound in the fourth inning with none out and runners on the corners in a 4-0 game. However, the third of those four runs was not entirely Clemens's fault.
With two outs and none on in the third, Jason Varitek doubled, but Clemens induced a ground ball to third from Johnny Damon. Normally, the sure-handed Boone would have been there to get the out without a problem, but Joe Torre elected to start Enrique Wilson over Boone since the latter had an anemic .161/.212/.194 triple slash in 10 playoff games so far and Wilson had good numbers in about 20 plate appearances against his countryman Pedro Martinez. Wilson was a worse fielder though, and he threw Damon's ground ball away, allowing Varitek to score the third run. An accurate throw would have ended the inning with the score 2-0, but the defensive miscue hurt the Yankees.
Red Sox RISPfail and Moose's stellar relief
The Yankees were also lucky that the Red Sox went 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position throughout the game, keeping their run total down. Manny Ramirez flew out against Clemens with Todd Walker on second and two outs in the first inning, and while Wilson's error scored a run with a man in scoring position, Walker followed it up with another missed scoring opportunity by grounding out to first with Damon on second. Clemens left the bullpen in a jam with no one out and runners on the corners, but normal starter Mike Mussina was brilliant in the first relief appearance of his 13-year career. "Moose" fanned Varitek and got Damon to bounce to Jeter for a double play. Mussina entered with a lowly weighted team win expectancy of 8% (the second-lowest it sank during the game), but increased it to 15% by the end of the inning.
The Red Sox put runners on first and second with one out against Mussina in the next inning with the dangerous combination of David Ortiz and Millar coming up. Moose thankfully continued to frustrate the Red Sox though, as he struck Ortiz out and made Millar ground out to Jeter. In great part to the overlooked but nearly-perfect relief work of Mussina (who bailed the Yankes out with three innings of shutout ball), Felix Heredia, Jeff Nelson, and starter David Wells, Boston didn't get another man in scoring position again until after the Yankees had tied it in the eighth. (Although Ortiz did take Wells deep for a crushing solo homer that made it 5-2 in the eighth and decreased the Yankees' win expectancy from 16% to 8% again).
In the ninth, they actually put pinch-runner Damian Jackson in scoring position with two outs against Mariano Rivera. Ortiz also doubled with two outs in the tenth, putting another runner in scoring position in pinch-runner Gabe Kapler. Both times though, Mo was unperturbed, forcing Walker to line out to second with Jackson on in the ninth and Millar to pop out with Kapler on in the tenth. Boston's big homers hurt the Yankees on this night, but the pitchers were superb when Red Sox runners were in scoring position.
The Giambino's forgotten highlight homers
The Yankees had a game-low win expectancy of 6% with one out in the eighth inning against Pedro after Nick Johnson popped out to Nomar Garciaparra. The Red Sox led 5-2, but if it wasn't for the efforts of one Yankee, Pedro would probably have been throwing a shutout and the win expectancy would be even lower. Like Boone, first baseman Jason Giambi was ice cold entering Game 7; he hit just .216/.326/.351 over the first 10 playoff games, though he did homer off John Burkett the night before. Seeking to shake up the lineup, Torre elected to bat Giambi seventh in Game 7, the lowest the slugger had began a game in the lineup since July 15, 1999. It didn't do much to help in his first at-bat, when Pedro struck him out.
Giambi led off the fifth inning for the Yankees with the score 4-0 in favor of Boston. The Yankees had managed just two hits and a walk against Pedro thus far. He guessed the Pedro would throw him a changeup for the first pitch of the inning, and he guessed correctly. Giambi took Pedro's infamous changeup deep for a long solo homer that almost went into the black seats in center field. Two innings later, Giambi batted against Pedro again with two outs in the seventh. He worked Pedro to a 2-2 count, then guessed Pedro would throw a fastball. For the second time, he guessed correctly and homered to center field. Those two Giambi solo homers were the Yankees' only offense until the eighth inning. The famous rally would have had to be even bigger for the Yankees to tie it if not for Giambi's crucial homers.
The go-ahead eighth inning hit that wasn't
Jorge Posada's bloop double tied the game at five against Pedro with one out in the eighth, and Little finally went to his bullpen. At this point, the Yankees had a little bit of RISPfail of their own. Giambi could put the Yankees in front with a single, but lefty Alan Embree got him to fly out to center field. Little played matchups and removed Embree in favor of veteran righty Mike Timlin, who intentionally walked pinch-hitter Ruben Sierra. Unsurprisingly, immediately throwing four balls out of the strike zone threw Timlin off a little bit, and he then walked right fielder Karim Garcia to load the bases for the dangerous Soriano.
The hard-hitting second baseman who homered 38 times in '03 had a miserable ALCS, batting just .133/.188/.167 with one extra-base hit. He blew a chance to tie the game against Pedro in the previous inning; he came up with runners on first and second and two out after back-to-back singles by Wilson and Garcia, but struck out swinging on a 2-2 pitch. Now though, he could atone for his ALCS struggles and be the man featured in all the highlight films for getting the go-ahead hit of Game 7 with Rivera all set to close the Red Sox down in the ninth with a lead. Even a rare walk would have gotten the job done. On a 1-1 pitch, Soriano hit one hard that caromed off the back of the pitcher's mound and took a weird hop. Since the pitcher's mound is an oddly curved part of the field, caroms off the mound often go in a completely unpredictable direction, leading to base hits from the confusion. This time though, the carom went right to the second baseman Walker, who made a nice play to snare the ball over his head and touch second base for the forceout.
Soriano could have been the hero, but of course, the heroes were Rivera, who threw 48 pitches in relief and three scoreless innings, and Boone, who pinch-ran for Sierra in the eighth and homered to lead off the 11th against knuckleballer Tim Wakefield on the first pitch he saw of the night. There could have been several other heroes, but baseball decided to go this route on this memorable night a decade ago.