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Thrills were in season

This campaign was entertaining in so many ways

One wonders if somewhere in the course of the Red Sox' 2003 season, a shellshocked young pitcher didn't glance back over his shoulder and mutter, "There is the greatest hitting team there ever was."

If it was young general manager Theo Epstein's goal to assemble the 21st century Murderers Row, he accomplished it with cool and poise. He didn't sign two very important pieces -- Kevin Millar and David Ortiz -- until late in the free agency period. He traded a productive early-season hitter, Shea Hillenbrand, without a second thought.

Good pitching beats good hitting, eh? Well, for these Red Sox, it was a case of great hitting beating good pitching. Occasionally they were derailed by an opposition hurler, but if the pitchers they faced were any less than on top of their games, forget it. Boston's lineup, 1 through 9, showed no mercy.

And that made up for a less-than-outstanding defense and pitching staff. Oh, there was some leather flashed over the course of 95 wins, but at times it was in short supply. The starting pitchers performed well, with Derek Lowe winning 17. Pedro Martinez was carefully monitored, won 14 games, and had at least five games blown by a bullpen that on the brink of the American League Championship Series still isn't in order.

This season, we learned all about pharyngitis (translation: really bad sore throat), BPC (bullpen by committee), and OBP (on-base percentage). The numerology of Bill James was put to use in personnel decisions, and his emphasis on OBP certainly proved well-founded. The Sox also had the highest slugging percentage in major league history -- .491 -- surpassing those Murderers Row '27 Yankees.

It wasn't all about math, however. Chemistry also played a huge part. While putting such a productive and powerful lineup together, Epstein also took a page from the New England Patriots, who won a Super Bowl over the heavily favored St. Louis Rams largely because of intangibles.

Nobody embodied that more than Millar. The motto "cowboy up" was first introduced by reliever Mike Timlin, but it was constantly referenced by Millar. The team had to be tough to make so many late-inning rallies and grab so many big wins after what appeared to be humiliating and deflating losses. Millar added a looseness to the clubhouse, as did Ortiz, who had a career season hitting behind Manny Ramirez and who often heard chants of "MVP, MVP" for his clutch hitting down the stretch.

The team already had superstars in Nomar Garciaparra, Ramirez, Martinez, and Jason Varitek, but the complementary players Epstein acquired became stars in their own right. Bill Mueller, a solid infielder and hitter in the National League, won the batting title with a .326 average. Todd Walker proved a perfect hitter at Fenway Park and, despite a cold July, produced at crunch time. Trot Nixon seemed to turn the corner and become solid everyday player, and his competitive attitude was contagious.

It didn't always go smoothly. Martinez and Ramirez didn't speak to members of the fourth estate, and Ramirez continued to do his share of goofy things, including missing four straight late-season games with "flulike symptoms" and then being kept on the bench as a healthy scratch in the next game. None of that could override the fact that Ramirez might not have a peer among hitters in the league.

The average age of the Red Sox was almost two years older than Epstein (now 29), who after assembling his dream lineup realized he might have been a bit short in the pitching department. So he went to work, engineering deals near the trading deadline for Scott Williamson, Scott Sauerbeck, and Jeff Suppan. He'd already gotten Byung Hyun Kim for Hillenbrand in late May.

Contract options were a topic, early and late. While unable to agree on a long-term extension for Martinez in the spring, the team did pick up the $17.5 million 2004 option on the pitcher's six-year, $75 million deal, months before it had to. On the flip side, manager Grady Little received no word from management on his option. Yet he flourished, leading the Sox to those 95 wins (188 in two seasons) and the wild-card berth. Has such a successful manager ever prompted so much second-guessing?

Fenway Park never looked so good. There were bigger concourses, and the new seats on the Green Monster were the rage in the major leagues. The John Henry-led ownership tried to maximize every potential source of revenue (the Sox had the highest average ticket price in baseball), while maximizing fan comfort in an antiquated ballpark. A record 2.7 million fans came through the turnstiles.

With Sox brass traditionally respectful of the dreaded Yankees -- perhaps too much so -- brash team president and CEO Larry Lucchino went for their throats, referring to them as the "Evil Empire" in the aftermath of New York's acquiring highly sought pitcher Jose Contreras.The Yankees won the American League East, but the Sox had enough to earn the wild-card spot. It was quite a season, and here's a look at many of the happenings that made it special:

FEBRUARY

The equipment truck left Boston at 1 p.m. on the 10th for the long journey to Fort Myers, Fla. The Chunichi Dragons let Millar out of his contract with them Feb. 14 and returned him to the Florida Marlins, who then sold him to the Sox. Martinez vowed he would leave as a free agent if the team did not exercise the option before the end of spring training, then he recanted. Garciaparra came to camp engaged to soccer star Mia Hamm. Former Sox owner Haywood Sullivan died unexpectedly.

MARCH

At one point in spring training, Casey Fossum's record and ERA were 1-3 and 16.05. On the 6th, Martinez made his spring debut in a 3-0 loss to the Twins, after which he declared he was sound and proclaimed, "I know I'm the ace." Hillenbrand was whacking the ball for a .500 average (16 for 32, 5 doubles and 2 home runs). The Sox dealt Rule 5 lefthander Javier Lopez to Colorado even after he had a 1.35 ERA in seven appearances. A successful spring training concluded, the bullpen-by-committee started the season on the 31st by blowing its first game. Alan Embree and Chad Fox surrendered two homers and five runs in the ninth in a 6-4 Opening Day loss to Tampa Bay at Tropicana Field. The bullpen-by-committee was questioned by Martinez, who had a 4-1 lead when he left after seven: "When you have a guy that saves 40 for you [Ugueth Urbina, the closer last season], it's difficult to understand that they're going to hand the ball to a committee of relievers that you've never seen before. To me, it's the first time I've seen this happen."

APRIL

The Sox kicked off the month in a much better way, with a 9-8 win in 16 innings against the Devil Rays. Millar hit the winning homer on a 1-and-2 offering from Jorge Sosa in a game that lasted 5:15. The Sox took the opening series, winning three of the four games and scoring 30 runs in the final three, a sign of things to come. On the 7th, the Sox exercise Martinez's '04 option. Five days later, he coughed up 10 runs in 4 1/3 innings in a 13-6 loss to the Orioles in the opener at Fenway, and he heard a few boos and references to his contract as he walked off the mound. Third-base coach Mike Cubbage collapsed in a diabetic seizure and was taken off the field in a stretcher, but he was OK. Martinez began his silence with the media following a 6-0 win over the Devil Rays at Fenway on the 17th. Game-time temperature: 33. On the 20th, trailing Toronto, 5-0, Garciaparra tied it with a two-run double in the seventh and won it with a homer in the ninth.

MAY

Martinez pitched one of his two complete games in a 9-1 win over the Twins at Fenway on the 3d, after a bullpen implosion the night before. Fossum beat the Royals, 7-3, in Kansas City on the 6th, preventing the Royals from winning their 12th straight at home. Martinez hurt his groin at the Metrodome in a 5-0 loss to the Twins on the 9th, but came back strong to beat the Rangers on the 15th, completing a sweep of Texas. ixon committed one of the season's top bloopers on the 17th in a 6-2 loss to Anaheim, tossing David Eckstein's fly ball down the right-field line into the stands after he made the catch. Problem was, that made two outs, and the gaffe opened the floodgates for the Angels. Martinez was scratched before a start on the 20th with a strained latissimus dorsi below the right shoulder and later was placed on the DL. In his place, Bruce Chen had a decent start and the Sox beat the Yankees, 10-7. On the 21st, Roger Clemens got career win No. 299 in a duel with Tim Wakefield at Fenway. The Boston fans cheered Clemens's return, and his feat. The Sox rebuffed Clemens in his bid for 300 on the 26th at Yankee Stadium, beating him, 8-4. It seems the "300" patch on the Rocket's glove was a bit premature. On the 27th, Garciaparra's 26-game hitting streak came to an end in an 11-3 loss. "I really never cared about it to begin with," said Garciaparra. "I'm more concerned we lost today." On the 28th, the Sox came back from a 5-1 deficit against Mike Mussina and Mariano Rivera in the ninth, only to lose on Brandon Lyon's bases-loaded walk of Jorge Posada in the bottom of the inning. On an offday on the 29th, the Sox traded Hillenbrand to Arizona for Kim.

JUNE

The Sox lost to the Jays, 11-8, at SkyDome on the 1st, dropping a three-game series. The team selected outfielder David Murphy from Baylor with its first pick in the amateur draft. On the 4th, the Sox swept the Pirates in a doubleheader at PNC Park, the first meeting of the teams since 1903, when Boston beat Pittsburgh in the World Series. Kim won his first start, 11-4, and the Sox reclaimed first place with the sweep. On the 7th, the Sox beat the Brewers at Miller Park, 11-10, coming back from a pair of six-run deficits. Millar has a pinch-hit grand slam and Nixon and Varitek hit back-to-back homers in the ninth. Martinez returned from the DL to pitch three scoreless innings against the Cardinals in a 13-1 win on the 11th. Former Sox skipper Jimy Williams and ex-Sox farmhand Jeff Bagwell returned to Fenway on the 13th, and Boston beat the Astros, 4-3, aided by 10 Houston walks. In Chicago on the 19th, the Red Sox pulled off a big 4-3 win in 10 innings over the surging White Sox on Johnny Damon's single to right after Varitek had moved runners along with a sacrifice bunt. The Sox had only three hits. On the 21st in Philadelphia, more bullpen woes hit. Rudy Seanez allowed former Sox farmhand Todd Pratt to hit a walkoff two-run homer in a 6-5 loss in 13 innings. Garciaparra's 6-for-6 effort went for naught. The Sox signed another important cog, Gabe Kapler, on the 24th. The signature victory of Boston's season came on the 27th at Fenway: a 25-8 win over Florida. The Sox broke a major league record by scoring 10 runs before the first out was recorded. They scored 14 in the inning as Marlins pitchers (including starter Carl Pavano) threw 91 pitches. Damon tied a record for hits in an inning with three. The 28 hits by the Sox tied a franchise record. Marlins manager Jack McKeon felt the Sox had piled on and Little thought a couple of his players had rubbed it in a little bit with their body language. On the 29th, the Sox hit six homers in an 11-7 win over Florida, and Kapler hit two of them. His two-day debut: 7 for 9 with five extra-base hits. From June 10-29, the Red Sox were 12-7; five of the seven losses resulted from bullpen problems.

JULY

Kim became the closer early in the month. The the Sox clubbed five homers off David Wells in a 10-3 win on the 4th at Yankee Stadium. On the 7th, Martinez received a no-decision in a 2-1 loss to Mussina, as Hideki Matsui scored in the ninth on a Walker error. Martinez hit Alfonso Soriano and Derek Jeter in the hand with pitches, and both left the game. On the 13th, the Sox lost to Detroit, 3-0, heading into the All-Star break, a game Ramirez missed to go home to check on his ailing mother. Ramirez and Garciaparra made the All-Star team, and Varitek won the fans' voting for the final spot. The team started out slowly after the break. It ended a three-game losing streak on the 19th with a 5-4 win over the Jays in 10 innings on a single by Nixon that scored Kapler, who stole second and went to third on an error. On the 22d, the Sox acquired Sauerbeck and young lefthander Mike Gonzalez for Lyon and Anastacio Martinez. The deal was later amended because the Pirates felt Lyon had an elbow problem. The Sox shipped infield prospect Freddie Sanchez to the Pirates and took back Lyon and Suppan. The Sox acquired Williamson on the 29th from the Reds for a prospect. On the same day, Mueller became the first player in major league history to hit grand slams from both sides of the plate in a 14-7 win over Texas. Mueller hit three homers in the game and had nine RBIs. "You never come to the ballpark thinking you're going to do anything like this," he said. On the 25th, Martinez struck out 10 over 6 2/3 innings and threw 128 pitches but the Yankees pulled off a 4-3 win in the ninth on Jeter's sacrifice fly off Kim. The next day the Sox won, 5-4, on Ortiz's walkoff single off the Monster off Armando Benitez. There was more drama on the 27th, as Varitek tied it with a three-run homer and Damon followed with the go-ahead shot as Boston put together a six-run seventh inning and won, 6-4. The Sox closed the month with a loss as Alex Rodriguez belted a walkoff grand slam off Todd Jones in the 11th for a 7-3 win at The Ballpark in Arlington.

AUGUST

On the 6th, Martinez threw his second complete game, a 4-2 win over Anaheim, striking out Tim Salmon with a 96-mile-per-hour fastball with the bases loaded to end it. There was more history on the 9th, when Millar hit the 10,000th homer at Fenway and Ramirez belted his 100th as a member of the Red Sox. The Sox began a crucial seven-game road trip to Oakland and Seattle by dropping the first two games at Network Associates Coliseum, to Tim Hudson and Barry Zito, on the 11th and 12th. But they won in the 13th, 7-3, as Ramirez hit a two-run homer off Mark Mulder and Millar homered and drove in three runs. In the series finale, Ramirez hit the tying homer in the ninth and Mueller drove in the go-ahead run in the 10th as the Sox prevailed, 4-2. Martinez improved to 11-0 against the Mariners in a 5-1 win on the 16th. The Sox finished the Coast swing 3-4. The team began a 12-game homestand on the 19th, but lost two to the A's, with Williamson and Kim blowing saves. With Martinez down with pharyngitis, Fossum stepped in and the Sox took the series finale, 14-5. At that game, the death of former Sox broadcaster Ken Coleman was recognized. It was also the debut of Millar as the Rally Karaoke Guy. The Sox swept the Mariners in four games to begin building their wild-card lead. Martinez returned on the 25th and earned an 8-1 win. On the 26th, Sauerbeck and Williamson gave up five runs in a 12-9 loss to Toronto. The sore throat bug hit Ramirez, who missed a series against the Yankees. On the 29th, the Sox beat the Yanks, 10-5, but they dropped the next two without their slugger. Meanwhile, Ramirez made headlines when he was reportedly seen in a Ritz bar with Yankees infielder Enrique Wilson and missed a doctor's appointment the next day.

SEPTEMBER

On the 1st, Nixon capped a six-run ninth inning with a grand slam as the Sox started a crucial nine-game road trip with a 13-9 win in Philadelphia and moved within a game of idle Seattle for the wild-card lead. Ramirez, who declined to pinch hit in that game, was a healthy scratch for the first game of the White Sox series in Chicago on the 2d, but the Sox won anyway, 2-1, as Kapler, filling in for Ramirez, hit a go-ahead solo homer and John Burkett pitched a strong game. The Sox had trouble gaining on the hot Yankees. On the 9th, in a 9-2 win in at Camden Yards, Ortiz's homer was the club's 214th, breaking the team record set in 1977. On the 17th, Walker's ninth-inning double was the 608th extra-base hit of the season, breaking the major league record. Kim's problems closing games led Little to return to the committee approach. Williamson disclosed that he had concerns over the health of his wife and newborn, who both ended up being fine. On the 23d, the Sox won one of the most dramatic games of the season, against the Orioles, 6-5, at Fenway. Walker hit a three-run homer on a 3-and-2 count with two outs in the ninth to tie it and Ortiz won it in the 10th with a solo homer into the Monster seats. The Sox clinched the wild card on the 25th with a 14-3 win over the Orioles at Fenway, and a wild celebration ensued. "There isn't a better place to play baseball," said Wakefield.

Thanks to such a great season (95-67), there is more baseball to be played.

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