MLB.com is airing their 20 Greatest Games of the past 50 seasons, and the Marlins had three games nominated among their top 50 games. You can check out all the nominated games in that link, but the three involving the Fish were not surprising; MLB.com chose Game 7 of the 1997 World Series against the Cleveland Indians, Game 4 of the 2003 NLDS against the San Francisco Giants, and the forever-infamous Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS against the Chicago Cubs. Last offseason, I started the Revisting 2003 series, and while I have had time constraints that have held me back from finishing the series as a whole, I’ve always enjoyed looking back at all aspects of Marlins history. This series provides some relevance to a series of reflective pieces on the greatest games in Marlins history.
Today, I figured we could start with the game that MLB.com deemed the 19th greatest game in the past 50 seasons, that 2004 NLDS game against the Giants. The backdrop of the game was set; the Marlins had won the Wild Card and had a home game with a chance to eliminate the NL West champion Giants. The Giants were led by the immortal Barry Bonds, who was still in the midst of his four-year tear through the league; that season, Bonds hit a majestic .341/.529/.749 with 45 home runs, and that was the worst of his four straight MVP-winning seasons.
The Fish countered with a very balanced attack led by a plethora of good positon players and a loaded rotation. The team was ready to combat the Giants that day with rookie phenom Dontrelle Willis, while the Giants countered with fellow rookie Jerome Williams, who seemed to have a pretty decent year for San Francisco (131 IP, 3.30 ERA, 3.96 FIP). What resulted from this matchup was a high-scoring affair that ended with a magnificent defensive play that captured that 2003 season perfectly.
The win probability graph shows a game that could have easily gotten out of hand and not been one of the best of the past five decades. The Marlins jumped on Williams and reliever Jim Brower, tagging them for five runs in four innings. But Willis and the Marlins were unable to hold off the Giants, who stormed back to tie the game in the sixth inning on a set of doubles and a single by J.T. Snow, who would be an important character later on in the game. Willis was pulled for Brad Penny, who was pitching out of the pen on three days rest. After Miguel Cabrera‘s RBI single pulled them ahead 5-1, the Marlins had a 92.5% chance of winning the game according to FanGraphs’ win probability charts. After Snow tied the game with his single, scoring Edgardo Alfonzo, the Fish’s chances had gone down to 52.8%.
In the bottom of that sixth inning, the Marlins got a chance with the bases loaded and no one out, but Cabrera (who otherwise had an excellent four-hit game, including two doubles) struck out and Juan Encarnacion grounded into a double play to end the threat. Neither team then threatened until the bottom of the eighth, when the Marlins struck with the top of the order. With two outs, Ivan Rodriguez singles and Derrek Lee gets hit by a pitch, allowing Cabrera to drive in Pudge with a single. Lee comes home on an error and the Marlins take a two-run lead into the ninth.
Prior to that inning, manager Jack McKeon made an interesting call. With two outs and nobody on in the tied game, he chose to intentionally walk Bonds. According to the win probability charts, that added 2.5% to the Giants’ chances of winning the game. Clearly McKeon thought that the average at-bat for Bonds, even with two outs, was going to be worth more than that 2.5%. If we go by Bonds’ 2003 stats, we can see that he averaged 0.149 runs above average per plate appearance, and based on his past two or three seasons (which were even better), he might have been projected to be even more productive. However, because of the two outs, the leverage of that particular plate appearance was only 0.95, about 5% less important than the average plate appearance. In other words, instead of risking Bonds’ average win value of about 0.014 wins above average, McKeon decided to go with the certainty of giving him a base, conceding about 0.01 wins in the process. It worked out, as Alfonzo grounded into a fielder’s choice to end the inning, but the speculation afterwards had the Giants capitalized would have been insane.
Ugeth Urbina, coming off a dominant stretch for the Marlins after being acquired for the end of the season, came in to close the game in the ninth. He came in and immediately gave up a line-drive double to perennial replacement player Neifi Perez followed by an RBI single to Snow to make it a 7-6 game. That hit by Snow cut into the Marlins’ odds of winning by almost 12%. Urbina made quick work of Pedro Feliz and former Fish Benito Santiago before hitting Ray Durham in the back of the leg, putting runners on first and second.
The following plate appearance featuring Urbina versus Jeffrey Hammonds had a leverage index of 5.41, meaning it was almost 5.5 times more important than the average PA. The game was on the line, and Hammonds came through with a soft line drive single into shallow left field. And then, well, perhaps one of the defining of the 2003 season for the Marlins happened. Watch the full play here at the 5:00 mark. Jeff Conine, a waiver trade deadline acquisition, makes a solid throw home on the short single, beating Snow to the plate by a mile. Once Pudge corrals the throw, the collision is imminent, and the only thing left to do is determine whether the ball will stay in Pudge’s hands.
The collision was fierce, but so was Pudge’s passion as he held the ball up triumphantly afterwards, assuring everyone in that stadium that the Marlins had held on to the victory, taking the series and eliminating the Giants. It was an amazing Marlins moment, certainly one of the most memorable in team history. That catch was worth the remaining 13.6% chance for the Marlins to win, but it was a defining moment for that team and that postseason. The Fish went on to have two more hard-fought series with good teams that ultimately ended in victory, but this, to me, was the defining image and play of that postseason. This game was well deserving of its recognition as one of the greatest games in the last 50 seasons.