The Oakland Athletics came into the 2003 playoffs riding an unfortunate streak – for three seasons in a row, they had been in the Division Series and every time they’d lost Game Five, going down three games to two. They’d lost to the Yankees, the Yankees, and the Twins. This year gave them the opportunity to shake that off. They won the A.L. West and faced the Wild Card from the East, the Boston Red Sox. Boston had a history with the A’s it wanted to overcome. They’d played Oakland eight times in postseason history and lost all eight times, swept in the 1988 League Championship Series and again in 1990.
Both teams had almost identical records, the A’s having one more regular-season game than the Red Sox, and that could be attributed to Oakland having won four of the seven face-to-face matchups between the two clubs during the year. However, there were distinct differences between Ken Macha’s A’s and Grady Little’s Red Sox. The A’s had much better pitching overall, a 3.63 earned run average compared to Boston’s 4.48. And the Red Sox had much more offense – their team batting average was .289 compared to Oakland’s .254, and they produced 193 more runs (961 compared to just 768 for the A’s). The Sox had three 100-RBI men: Nomar Garciaparra 105, Manny Ramirez 104, and David Ortiz 101. But Oakland had Miguel Tejeda with 106 RBIs and Eric Chavez with 101. Neither team had anyone who’d won more than 17 games.
Game One saw Oakland extend its playoff streak against the Red Sox to nine wins in a row. It wasn’t easy, though. It took 12 innings, perhaps reflecting how well-balanced the two teams were despite their different strengths. Tim Hudson (16-7, with a club-leading 2.70 ERA) pitched for Oakland, and 14-4 Pedro Martinez (2.22) threw for Boston. A solo home run by Sox second baseman Todd Walker drew first blood, but Oakland scored three runs in the bottom of the third on a double, a walk, a double, and a single. Another solo homer, by Jason Varitek, brought Boston back within one run. And, just after Hudson had been taken out in the top of the seventh, a two-run homer by Walker gave Boston a 4-3 lead. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Erubiel Durazo drove in his third run of the game with a single to tie it up, 4-4. The run was charged to Boston’s Byun-Hyung Kim who’d gotten the two outs but also walked a man and hit another. Alan Embree gave up the single. The Red Sox left two men on in the top of the 11th and two men on in the top of the 12th. With Derek Lowe’s (Boston’s winningest starter) on in relief, the A’s managed to get two walks and a stolen base, then an intentional walk to load the bases with two outs. Surprising everyone, catcher Ramon Hernandez bunted for a single and won the game.
Game Two saw Oakland extend its playoff streak against the Red Sox to ten wins in a row. This one was much easier. Even though both teams had just six hits, Barry Zito, Chad Bradford, and Keith Foulke spread out theirs and allowed just one run, in the top of the third on back-to-back doubles by Doug Mirabelli and Johnny Damon. It was almost anti-climactic by then, since the A’s had scored five times off Tim Wakefield in the bottom of the second. That was five runs on two hits – there were also two walks and a hit by pitch and a two-run error. There was no more scoring in the game. Zito struck out nine.
Game Three was an elimination game for the Red Sox. Their backs were to the wall, but at least they were at Fenway Park. Lowe started for the Sox, and Ted Lilly did for the A’s. Each team scored one unearned run on errors, and the game was tied 1-1 after nine innings. Both were complicated plays, the Red Sox run scoring on an error and an interference call, and the A’s scoring one run on an error and then seeing their attempt at pushing a second run across go for naught when Tejeda was thrown out at the plate. In the bottom of the 11th, facing Rich Harden, the Sox sent up Trot Nixon to pinch hit and he homered, bringing in Mirabelli before him for a 3-1 win.
The fourth game also went to the Red Sox, a close one-run game that they won in their last inning. Jermaine Dye singled in a run off Boston’s John Burkett in the second inning. A two-run homer by Johnny Damon off Steve Sparks in the third inning gave the Red Sox the 2-1 lead. An Adam Melhuse RBI triple followed by a two-run homer by Dye put Oakland on top, 4-2. Todd Walker hit his third home run of the Division Series in the bottom of the sixth, and then in the bottom of the eighth, David Ortiz doubled to drive in the tying and go-ahead runs. Foulke took the loss; Scott Williamson closed out the ninth and got the win.
That brought it all down to the deciding fifth game, in Oakland. The starters were Barry Zito and Pedro Martinez. Oakland grabbed the first run, when Jose Guillen doubled in former Sox player Scott Hatteberg, but whatever rally might have built died when Guillen was thrown out trying to take third base. Jason Varitek homered to lead off Boston’s sixth, and then Zito walked Damon and hit Walker, setting things up for a three-run homer to Manny Ramirez. The A’s got one run in the sixth and another in the eighth, and left the bases loaded in the ninth but couldn’t manage to tie it up. The Red Sox had broken whatever spell Oakland had on them, and prepared to face the Yankees in the ALCS.
The three men in Boston’s bullpen – Embree, Williamson, and Mike Timlin – had combined to throw 11 1/3 innings of shutout ball. They were looking good, and a relief corps Grady Little could perhaps rely on in the series to come.