2003 Philadelphia Phillies
2003 Philadelphia Phillies / Franchise: Philadelphia Phillies / BR Team Page
Managed by Larry Bowa
History, Comments, Contributions
The Philadelphia Phillies have fielded a wide variety of teams over the course of their history; few have been as interesting as the 2003 Philadelphia Phillies. It was a team that seemed to simultaneously be on the verge of greatness and on the brink of disaster. It featured an explosive, but maddeningly inconsistent offense. Its starting rotation boasted four pitchers who won no fewer than 14 games, but could never seem to click at the same time. Its bullpen featured strong setup performances, but had a disturbing inability to close out games. It was a season that saw a no-hitter, a near-mutiny, and a tearful farewell to the place they called home. Even with all the ups and downs, the Phillies still seemed poised to end a decade-long playoff drought. One final crash in the season's last week dashed those hopes, leaving the team and its fans to wonder what could have been.
For the first time in many years, there was a buzz surrounding the Phillies as they entered the 2003 season. It was to be the last season for Veterans Stadium, the team's home since 1971, and site of the franchise's only World Series victory to that point, in 1980. While the stadium was much-maligned, the Phils wanted to give it an adequate sendoff. Never known as big players in the free agent market, the Phillies stunned the baseball world by luring powerful first baseman Jim Thome away from the Cleveland Indians. They also made waves by acquiring 18-game winner Kevin Millwood from the Atlanta Braves in exchange for Johnny Estrada, a promising catcher who was blocked by Mike Lieberthal. The Phils also signed third baseman David Bell, who had been a key contributor for a San Francisco Giants team that had come within one win of a world championship. Journeyman Tyler Houston was also signed to help strengthen the bench.
As for the returning players, the signing of Bell allowed Placido Polanco to shift over to second base, while giving top prospect Chase Utley more time to develop in the minors. Rookie Marlon Byrd manned center field after Doug Glanville was allowed to leave via free agency. Millwood was expected to anchor a rotation that also featured reigning All-Star Vicente Padilla, blossoming lefty Randy Wolf, and young phenom Brett Myers. Joe Roa filled in for Brandon Duckworth, who started the season on the disabled list due to an elbow injury. Jose Mesa was back as the closer, with Terry Adams now in the bullpen full-time to set up. Turk Wendell was back in the fold after elbow troubles caused him to miss the entire 2002 season. Carlos Silva hoped to build off a strong rookie season, while lefties Rheal Cormier, Hector Mercado, and Dan Plesac rounded out the relief corps. It was widely believed that the Phils had the talent to dethrone the Braves in the National League East, or at least be a top Wild Card contender.
As the regular season began, so did many of the inconsistencies that would plague the team. On April 5th, they pounded the Pittsburgh Pirates, 16-1, only to be shut out by those same Buccos the next day. Then, on April 9th, the Phils hammered Greg Maddux and the Braves, 16-2, only to be muzzled by Trey Hodges and a cast of Atlanta relievers the following day, 6-2. Over the course of the season, the Phillies would score in double figures one night, only to be held to two or fewer runs the next day a total of eight times.
The Phillies were never below .500 at any point during the season. Pitching was a key reason for this early in the campaign. Never was that more apparent than on April 27th, when Millwood no-hit a very potent Giants lineup at Veterans Stadium. It was the ninth no-no in Phillies history and the first since Tommy Greene no-hit the Montreal Expos in 1991. The no-hitter was part of a dazzling 7-1 start for Millwood, while Wolf (who turned out to be the team's lone All-Star) and Myers also got off to strong starts, but their performances were somewhat offset by the early struggles of Padilla and Duckworth. Cormier and Wendell gave strong performances in relief early on, but Mesa had his difficulties holding things down in the 9th. Hot starts by Lieberthal and Polanco kept the offense afloat, while Thome and Bobby Abreu eventually picked things up after slow starts. On the negative side, Pat Burrell was struggling mightily after a breakout 2002 campaign. Bell was bothered by back injuries all season and could never find his stroke. Byrd also got off to a dismal start at the plate, and was nearly sent back to the minors before getting hot in early June.
While the Phillies struggled to find a rhythm, the Braves built a comfortable lead in the NL East. A seven-game winning streak at the end of June drew Atlanta's attention, but the Phils were never a serious threat to overtake the top spot. As the second half wore on, Philadelphia found itself in an eight-team dogfight for the Wild Card, a battle that would last for the duration of the season. On August 17th, the Phillies completed a three-game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals at the Vet, and were atop the Wild Card standings as they set out on a 13-game road trip. A respectable showing likely would have put the Phils in the driver's seat for an eventual playoff berth. Instead, Philadelphia lost nine of the first ten games, including a three-game sweep to the lowly Milwaukee Brewers, and a humiliating four-game sweep in Montreal. The Expos chased Wolf in the 2nd inning of the series opener and coasted to a 12-1 win. In the second game, the Phillies blew leads of 8-0 and 10-4 en route to a 14-10 loss. Myers and pitching coach Joe Kerrigan engaged in a shouting match following a 9-6 loss in the third game. Finally, manager Larry Bowa blasted his team after they sleepwalked through a series-concluding 4-0 loss. The players held a meeting of their own as they boarded the bus to the airport. It appeared to work at first, as the Phils finished the road trip by sweeping the last-place New York Mets, but even that was not without controversy. After hitting a home run during the opening game of the series, Burrell refused to shake Bowa's hand in the dugout. The following day, Houston (despite being the club's top pinch-hitter) was released when it was believed that he put Burrell up to the snub. Bowa and Houston would exchange heated barbs through the media in the ensuing days.
September began on a down note, as Mesa and Wendell turned a 9-7 9th-inning lead into a 13-9 loss in a makeup game against the Boston Red Sox at the Vet. The Phillies recovered, though, and swept a two-game series from the Expos before taking four straight from the Mets. Series losses in Atlanta and Pittsburgh set up a three-game Vet showdown with the Florida Marlins, who had taken over the Wild Card lead. The Phils took two of three to draw within a half-game, and they would regain the lead on [[September 19]th] after a 7-3 win over the Cincinnati Reds in the opener of a three-game weekend set. With eight games left, Philadelphia controlled its own destiny. Unfortunately, things fell apart once again. The Phillies dropped two straight to Cincinnati, then headed to Florida, where they were swept by the Marlins, the last loss officially ending their playoff hopes. The Marlins won the Wild Card and eventually the World Series.
All that was left was a three-game series back home dubbed "The Final Innings" in which Veterans Stadium would be bid farewell. Though the games turned out to be meaningless, sellout crowds showed up to give the Vet a proper sendoff. The Phils lost two of three to the Braves in the final series. The final game at Veterans Stadium occurred on September 28th, with Atlanta winning, 5-2. A moving tribute closed out the stadium, as players from years past paraded around the Vet. Mike Schmidt re-enacted his 548th and final home run (his 500th was hit at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh), Steve Carlton re-enacted his 3000th strikeout, while Tug McGraw (a little more than three months before his death) re-enacted the final out of the 1980 World Series.
While the 2003 season ultimately ended in disappointment, the campaign had many bright spots. Thome bashed an NL-leading 47 home runs, while knocking in 131. Lieberthal was the team's most consistent hitter all season, finishing up at .313 with 81 RBI. Polanco hit .289 with 14 homers and 68 RBI, while excelling at both second and third base. Byrd's brutal start cost him any legitimate shot at the Rookie of the Year Award, but he did end up hitting .303. Abreu had a quiet season by his standards, but was still at .300 with 20 homers, 101 RBI, and 22 stolen bases when all was said and done. On the flip side, Burrell hit a puzzling .209, although his 21 home runs were second on the club. Bell's first season in Philadelphia was an injury-plagued disaster, as he hit .195 in 85 games. Aside from Houston, Ricky Ledee, Jason Michaels, Tomas Perez, and Todd Pratt all held their own off the bench. Utley struggled a bit in two major league stints, but he made some history by belting a grand slam for his first major league hit on April 24th. Utley also made some dubious history by grounding into a double play to end the final game at Veterans Stadium.
On the mound, Wolf won a career-high 16 games, though he struggled a bit after the All-Star break. Millwood fizzled after a blazing start, finishing 14-12, although he did have two other shutouts aside from his no-hitter. Myers experienced the expected growing pains, but his 14-9 record provided plenty of hope for the future. A rough start almost cost Padilla his spot in the starting rotation, but he was the club's most consistent second-half hurler, finishing 14-12 with a 3.62 ERA. Duckworth had a second straight disappointing season, going 4-7 with a 4.94 ERA, winning only once after May 17th. Amaury Telemaco joined the rotation in August and pitched respectably despite having only a 1-4 record to show for it. In the bullpen, Cormier allowed five runs in his first inning of work, but only 11 the rest of the way, fashioning an outstanding 8-0 record and 1.70 ERA. Plesac, in his final season, overcame a slow start to post a 2-1 record and 2.70 ERA. Adams also struggled early, but came on strong in the second half. The opposite was true for Wendell, who started strong but faded late. Mesa saved 24 games, becoming the franchise's all-time leader in the process, but his season was a mess otherwise, as he went 5-7 with a 6.52 ERA. Mike Williams was acquired from the Pirates in July to take some of the pressure off, but he was a complete bust, going 0-4 with a 5.96 ERA.
With the Veterans Stadium era now over, the Phillies headed over to Citizens Bank Park. If the inaugural season in the new park was to have a happier ending, the Phils would have to address their late-game pitching issues. Early in the offseason, the Phillies got an unexpected solution as they acquired flame-throwing closer Billy Wagner from the Houston Astros in exchange for Duckworth, along with minor league pitchers Taylor Buchholz and Ezequiel Astacio. Tim Worrell, who had saved 38 games for the Giants in 2003 while filling in for an injured Robb Nen signed on to set up Wagner. Roberto Hernández, who had twice been an All-Star closer himself, was also brought in to provide some depth. Another acquisition of note was Eric Milton, a talented southpaw starter who came over from the Minnesota Twins in exchange for Silva, infielder Nick Punto, and minor league pitcher Bobby Korecky.
A new era of Philadelphia Phillies baseball was set to begin. The ballclub seemingly had made the moves necessary to join baseball's elite class. It was now a matter of proving it on the field.
Awards and Honors
- All-Star: Randy Wolf
- Bob Webster: "A Comeback for the Ages; August 26, 2003: Montreal Expos 14, Philadelphia Phillies 10 At Olympic Stadium", in Norm King, ed.: Au jeu/Play Ball: The 50 Greatest Games in the History of the Montreal Expos, SABR, Phoenix, AZ, 2016, pp. 135-137. ISBN 978-1-943816-15-6