In a series that would eventually be remembered for one foul ball in Game 6, the Marlins came up with a wild win on the road in the opener. On this date, October 7, 2003, Florida topped the Chicago Cubs, 9-8, in Game 1 of the NLCS, thanks to a go-ahead home run from pinch-hitter Mike Lowell in the 11th inning.
Both Florida and Chicago probably had to feel pretty good about facing the other for the right to go to the World Series, as each had managed to dispatch a 100-plus win team in the NLDS (the Marlins topped the Giants, three games to one, and the Cubs bested the Braves in five games) and thus theoretically faced an easier road in the NLCS. The two teams were pretty similar overall. The Marlins won 91 games in the regular season and the Cubs 88; both were led by young, talented pitching staffs, with names like Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano, Josh Beckett and Dontrelle Willis; and both had just decent offenses, finishing right around the NL average in runs scored. Given all this, the series seemed set to be a tightly-contested one (as one would expect of most NLCS matchups).
Game 1 certainly fit that expectation, becoming the highest-scoring game of the 2003 playoffs to date and requiring extra innings to complete. Florida appeared to have an advantage in the pitching matchup, throwing No. 1 starter Josh Beckett (3.04 regular-season ERA; seven innings, one earned run allowed in NLDS Game 1). Since their NLDS series went five games, the Cubs were forced to use Wood, their ace, in Game 5, and NLCS-opening duties thus fell to the 22-year-old Zambrano (3.11 regular-season ERA; 5.2 innings, three earned runs allowed in NLDS Game 2). As it turned out, both offenses had little trouble scoring, turning the game into a battle of whoever could overpower the other.
The Cubs started things off with a four-run explosion in the bottom of the first, led by a two-run homer from former Marlin Moises Alou. Florida wasn't impressed; two innings later, the Fish cranked three home runs to take a 5-4 lead. Ivan Rodriguez hit a three-run shot first, and after first baseman Derrek Lee struck out, Miguel Cabrera and Juan Encarnacion followed with solo shots. (Cabrera, at age 20, became the second-youngest player to homer in the postseason, behind 19-year-old Andruw Jones in the 1996 World Series.) Both pitchers settled down after this initial power display, but the 6th inning brought more fireworks. Jeff Conine hit a sac fly in the top of the frame to extend Florida's lead to 6-4, but in the bottom of the inning, Chicago shortstop Alex Gonzalez (not to be confused with Florida shortstop Alex Gonzalez) hit a two-run shot to right to tie the game. When the dust settled, both Beckett and Zambrano had forgettable outings, with the former allowing six earned runs in 6.1 innings and the latter giving up five earned in six innings.
Florida's Gonzalez had two big defensive plays in the bottom of the 7th and the 8th, snaring tough balls from Sammy Sosa and Aramis Ramirez to help keep the game tied; the Cubs' Mark Grudzielanek couldn't match the effort, as his error in the top of the 9th at second base turned a potential inning-ending double play into a bases-loaded situation for Pudge, who promptly laced a two-run single. Down 8-6, the 34-year-old Sosa--in the midst of rapid, steroid-fueled career decline, yet nevertheless able to crank 40 home runs in 2003--stepped up with a runner on and two outs in the 9th. The slugger launched his first postseason homer onto Waveland Avenue, sending the game into extras.
But the Marlins wouldn't die. All-Star third baseman Mike Lowell played just one game in September due to a broken hand and received just one at-bat in the NLDS. He also hadn't pinch hit all season. But manager Jack McKeon sent him to hit for the pitcher in the top of the 11th, and he responded with a home run over the wall in center field. Braden Looper pitched a perfect bottom of the 11th, and the Marlins, who came from behind in each of their NLDS wins, collected yet another comeback win on this date. Florida took a 1-0 lead in the NLCS, seizing control in a big way.