No one National League team dominated the decade the way the Braves did in the 1990s. So almost every year the NL Pennant was up for grabs.
Only one National League team, the 2004 Cardinals, had the league’s best record in the regular season and went on to the World Series. So the only thing predictable in the NLCS for the 2000s was unpredictability.
One series had teams exchanging walk off homers in back to back games… some series had outstanding pitching… other games were brutal slugfests.
In one series, one of the most reliable closers in the league had a potential pennant clinching pitch crushed out of the park.
The next year one of the least experience closers in playoff history froze a superstar with a series ending called third strike.
There were walk off hits and extra inning showdowns… there were base runners tagged out when they didn’t know they were originally called safe… and over managing in big situations.
And there was one poor guy sitting along the left field line at Wrigley Field who did what anyone on the planet Earth would have done… and got blamed for a teams collapse while the players themselves got off Scot Free.
As started in the Best of 2000s Post Season Home Page, I am picking the best game for each game of the series… Best Game 1, Best Game 2… etc.
And when need be, I’ll have some honorable mentions.
Best Game 1 of the National League Championship Series for the 2000s2003 – Marlins 9 Cubs 8 (11 innings)
In a creepy foreshadowing of pain to come, a Wrigley celebration was silenced by Florida heroics and a lot of “what just happened?” headshaking by Cubs fans.
The Cubs jumped all over Josh Beckett for 4 first inning runs and the rout seemed to be on.
But Pudge Rodriguez, Miguel Cabrera and Juan Encarnacion all homered in a 5 run third, giving the lead to the fish. The Cubs would tie the game but Rodriguez came through with a 2 run single in the 9th.
In the bottom of the 9th with 2 outs and down by 2, Sammy Sosa hit a game tying homer that seemed to be destined to live in Cubs lore forever.
Mike Lowell and the Marlins had the last laugh. Lowell hit a lead off homer in the 11th and reliever Braden Looper held off the Cubs in the 11th. How would this series had played out differently if the Cubs could have pulled it out?
Honorable mentions for Game 1 of the National League Championship Series for the 2000s
One of the best pitching matchups of recent history did not disappoint in Game 1. Greg Maddux, winner of 4 Cy Youngs, went up against Randy Johnson, who would win 5.
Reggie Sanders hit an RBI single in the first and Luis Gonzalez hit a 2 out RBI single in the 5th.
That was the extent of the damage off of Maddux over 7 innings. But it was enough as Johnson went 9 innings, allowing 3 hits and 1 walk while striking out 11.
Best Game 2 National League Championship Series for the 2000s
The Rockies had won 17 of their last 18 games going into Game 2 of the ALCS. The Diamondbacks were the last team to beat them in a game, which clinched the NL West.
Colorado’s winning streak was continuing in the post season and they took a 2-1 lead into the 9th in Phoenix.
With one out, Eric Byrnes hit into what looked like a potential game ending double play. But the throw to second base went wide, pulling Troy Tulowitski off of the bag and letting the tying run score. The trouble was Stephen Drew of the D’Backs didn’t know he was called safe and wandered off of second where he was tagged out.
Instead of the winning run being in scoring position with 1 out, there were 2 outs and a runner on first. The Diamondbacks couldn’t win it and it went into extra innings.
In the 11th, Jose Valverde walked 3 batters including walking Willy Tavares on 4 pitches with 2 outs to force in the go ahead (and eventual winning run.) Arizona lost the next two and the Rockies swept their way into the World Series.
Honorable mentions for Game 2 of the National League Championship Series for the 2000s
The Mets broke a 3-3 tie in the 8th but Mike Piazza was thrown out at third to end the inning. The Cardinals turned around and tied it back up in the 8th on a wild pitch and a double. But Bobby Valentine pitched around Mark McGwire and got out of the inning.
Robin Ventura reached on a Will Cark error and scored on Jay Payton’s single. Then Armando Benitez did the impossible: He held the lead.
The Mets were 4-0 in the post season going into Game 2 after a sweep of the Dodgers and a Game 1 win over the Cardinals. They seemed like they were going to steamroll into the World Series, especially after Carlos Delgado hit a 3 run homer in the first and homered again in the 5th.
But the Cardinals kept fighting back and the game was tied going into the top of the 9th. So Taguchi led off the 9th with a homer and St. Louis added 2 more to get the win and show that the road to the World Series was going to be a little tougher than the Mets thought.
Pedro Martinez vs Vincente Padilla was not supposed to be a great pitching match up in 2009. But Pedro was magnificent throwing 7 shutout innings. Padilla was amazing himself, letting up 1 run over 7 1/3 innings (a Ryan Howard homer.)
Pedro only threw 87 pitches, but Charlie Manuel took him out. It backfired as 5 pitchers labored through the 8th where the tying run scored on a wild throw by the second baseman and the winning run scored on a bases loaded walk.
It was a collapse that can only be described as a team effort, wasting what might have been Pedro Martinez’s last great start.
Best Game 3 National League Championship Series for the 2000s
This was probably the best played game of the Cubs Marlins series… if not the most remembered.
Kerry Wood, who dominated the Braves in the Division Series, was given an early 2 run lead, thanks in part to his own RBI sacrifice fly. But Pudge Rodriguez knocked him out with a go head single in the 7th.
Randall Simon gave the Cubs the lead in the next inning with a homer, but the Marlins tied it on a Todd Hollandsworth single. Joe Borowski wiggled out of a bases loaded jam in the 9th, sending the game to extras.
In the 11th, Doug Glanville tripled home Kenny Lofton and Cubs reliever Mike Remlinger made the lead stick. The Cubs seemed like a team of destiny. They were… just not in the way they wanted to be.
Honorable mention for Game 3 of the National League Championship Series for the 2000s
Roger Clemens and Matt Morris pitched to a 2-2 tie into the 6th inning when Houston took the lead on Jason Lane’s RBI single.
The Cardinals would rally in the 9th inning cutting the Astros lead to 1 on John Mabry’s 2 out RBI double. But Brad Lidge got David Eckstein to fly out and end the threat, giving Housin a 2-1 series lead.
The Dodgers took the lead in Game 4 on Matt Kemp’s homer and seemed ready to tie the series at 2 and force a Game 6 in Los Angeles.
In the 9th, closer Jonathan Broxton got Raul Ibanez out to lead off the inning and it seemed like he was going to cruise to the save, facing the bottom of the order.
But pinch hitter (and Dodger killer from 2008) Matt Stairs coaxed a walk and Carlos Ruiz was hit by a pitch. With 2 outs, slumping former MVP Jimmy Rollins laced a double into the gap that was so well placed that catcher Ruiz scored all the way from first base for the winning run.
The demoralized Dodgers lost the next game and the Phillies were on to their second straight World Series.
Honorable mentions for Game 4 of the National League Championship Series for the 2000s
The Cardinals, looking to tie the series at 2, jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first. Andy Benes would hold the lead into the 6th when LaRussa, possibly over managing, pulled his pitcher and Rick White let up a game tying double to J. T. Snow.
With 2 outs and nobody on in the 8th inning, LaRussa walked Bonds intentionally. Benito Santiago responded with a go ahead homer. Nen would wiggle out of trouble in the 9th to hold on to the win.
Behind Albert Pujols’s 2 run first inning homer and a Jim Edmonds RBI in the third, the Cardinals jumped ahead to a 4-1 lead and looked ready to take a 3-1 series lead. But the Astros came fighting back, tying the game in the 6th and taking the lead on Carlos Beltran’s 7th inning homer. Brad Lidge would record a 2 inning save including getting Albert Pujols out in the 9th.
An error by Cardinals pitcher Jason Marquis set up a tie breaking rally for the Astros in the 7th. But the Cardinals looked to rally in the 9th when they put runners on the corners with nobody out. The Astros threw out Albert Pujols at home for the first out. John Mabry grounded out but seemed to have scored the tying run. But Adam Everett and Eric Bruntlett completed a lightning fast double play to end the game.
Best Game 5 National League Championship Series for the 2000s
In the grand scheme of things, Albert Pujols massive and mind boggingly clutch homer off of Brad Lidge didn’t matter that much.
The Astros would win the Series in 6 games instead of 5.
And while Brad Lidge would have a disastrous World Series, he made up for is with a brilliant 2008 season and World Series.
But the titanic blast remains one of the enduring images of any sporting event of this decade.
When it happened I was listening to the Astros radio broadcast on my XM because I wanted to hear how excited the home town announcers would get over the first ever Houston pennant. Milo Hamilton was so depressed after Albert’s blast that at first I didn’t even realize what happened.
The guy to feel badly for is Lance Berkman, whose three run homer gave Houston a late lead and would have been able to celebrate a pennant in front of the home town crowd.
Both Albert Pujols and Brad Lidge have gone on to win World Series rings since then. But they will always be linked together.
Honorable mentions for Game 5 of the National League Championship Series for the 2000s
If LaRussa over managed Game 4, he UNDER managed Game 5. I guess there is no pleasing some people.
The Cardinals took a 1-0 lead into the bottom of the 8th behind Matt Morris’ brilliant pitching. But he loaded the bases in the 8th and faced Bonds with only 1 out. LaRussa left him in and Bonds tied the game with a sacrifice fly.
With Tino Martinez on the bench and Morris clearly out of gas, LaRussa had Morris bat in the 9th inning.
In the bottom of the 9th with 2 outs, Morris let up back to back singles forcing LaRussa to bring in Steve Kline. Kline let up a pennant winning, series ending, walk off single to Kenny Lofton.
For 8 innings, this was one of the best pitchers duels you will ever see in a post season game. Cardinals’ starter Woody Williams let up a single to Jeff Bagwell in the 1st and that was it for his 7 innings of shutout ball.
Not to be outdone, Astros starter Brandon Backe held the Cardinals to 1 hit over 8.
Neither would get a decision as Jeff Kent hit a towering 3 run homer with 1 out in the 9th to end the game.
Best Game 6 National League Championship Series for the 2000s
In some ways it is desperately unfair to call Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS “The Steve Bartman Game.”
Bartman went for a foul pop up just like anyone would. The catch would have been a terrific one for Alou and no sure thing.
And yes, Bartman did interfere with the catch, the point would have been moot if Mark Prior got Luis Castillo out on the next pitch.
Bartman didn’t let up 8 runs that inning.
Bartman didn’t boot an easy grounder like Alex Gonzalez did.
Bartman didn’t let up a huge 3 run bases clearing double to light hitting pinch hitter Mike Mordecai.
But watching the game again on iTunes made me realize calling it “The Steve Bartman Game” might be cruel but kind of accurate.
Before that fly ball, Wrigley Field had an aura of Mardi Gras. It was a generational celebration.
After the fly ball… there was an uneasy murmur. And then the most incredible thing about watching the rest of that inning was how fast it was.
Right after Bartman, Prior walked Castillo with a wild pitch, sending Pierre to third.
Then on an 0-2 count Pudge Rodriguez singled home the first run.
On the very next pitch, Cabrera hit the grounder that Gonzalez booted.
On the very next pitch, Lee hit the game tying double.
After a pitching change, Lowell was walked intentionally and Conine drove home the go ahead run with a sacrifice fly.
Think about that for a second. 10 pitches were thrown after the Bartman fly ball (4 of which were intentional balls) and in those 10 pitches, the game went from a celebration with the Ace on the mound to a surrendered lead and doom.
When Mordecai cleared the bases, the game went from certain joy to a blow out loss.
I don’t blame Bartman… but the game turned ugly faster than any event since Carrie’s prom.
Honorable mention for Game 6 of the National League Championship Series for the 2000s
The Cardinals were 1 out away from tying the series at 3 games a piece when Jeff Bagwell tied the game with an RBI single. The Astros pushed Brad Lidge for 3 shutout innings while trying to push a go ahead run in extra innings. But the Cardinals bullpen shut Houston down. Finally Dan Miceli took over for an exhausted Lidge and served up a walk off, series tying homer to Jim Edmonds.
Best Game 7 National League Championship Series for the 2000s
For pure baseball excitement, the decade didn’t offer much better than Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS.
The matchup of Oliver Perez and Jeff Suppan was supposed to yield a slug fest. But through 5 the score was 1-1.
In the top of the 6th, Perez looked vulnerable with 1 on and 1 out. Scott Rolen hit a tremendous fly ball to left field that was heading for the bullpen when Endy Chavez made one of the single greatest catches you will see anyone make ever. He caught the ball at the apex of his leap at the tip of his glove. And for good measure threw to first to double up Jim Edmonds, who like everyone else on the planet Earth, thought the ball was long gone.
The Mets couldn’t cash in in the bottom of the 6th when they blew a bases loaded 1 out chance.
The score remained 1-1 into the 9th when Yadier Molina, who at that point was the Zeppo of the Molina brothers, hit a 2 run shot to give the Cardinals the lead.
The Mets rallied in the 9th, putting the first two runners on against Adam Wainwright. Why Cliff Floyd didn’t bunt them over will be a mystery that future historians will try to solve.
With the bases loaded and 2 outs, Wainwright faced Cardinals killer Carlos Beltran.
With Shea going nuts and the chance for the Mets to steal the baseball attention away from the Yankees one swing away, Wainwright threw a devastating curve. Beltran didn’t swing and it was a called third strike and the Mets have yet to recover.
Honorable mentions for Game 7 of the National League Championship Series for the 2000s
Steve Bartman could have been reduced to a strange footnote had the Cubs won Game 7. And even though they fell behind 3-0 in the first, the team looked like they might come back.
Kerry Wood himself hit a game tying homer in the second inning. Moises Alou gave the Cubs the lead with a 3rd inning homer.
But this was the Marlins’ year. They took the lead in the 5th thanks in part to another Pudge Rodriguez double and pulled away in the 6th and 7th. When the Marlins clinched the pennant, Wrigley Field was silent save for the Marlins players cheering.
Craig Biggio led off the game with a homer and Roger Clemens took a lead (and a potential Houston pennant) into the 6th inning. But Albert Pujols tied the game with a double and Scott Rolen’s homer game St. Louis the lead. St. Louis held on to win a series that was underrated for thrills.
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