The 2003 Chicago Cubs are remembered for what happened in Game 6 of the NLCS. But before all that, the North Siders boasted one of the best starting rotations in the National League.
They were young. The “grizzled veteran” was 28-year-old Matt Clement, he of the, umm, unique beard. The next oldest was Kerry Wood, a 26-year-old most remembered for his fastball and 20 strikeout game against the powerful Astros and their “Killer B’s” in 1998. Then there was the mercurial 22-year-old Carlos Zambrano. The emotion was to come later as Big Z was just in his second full major league season.
A young Cubs ace takes the mound and dominates all year long
But the ace of the staff, at least that year, was another 22-year-old named Mark Prior. Prior was a big guy, 6’5″, 230 pounds with a mid-nineties fastball. Prior was very good the entire season, but the last two months were the stuff of legend.
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In his last eleven games in August and September, Prior went 10-1, with a 1.52 ERA, striking out 95 while walking just 16. The Cubs were in third place at the start of August that year, at 54-53. By the end of the season, they had gone 34-21 and Prior won just under one-third of those games. The big right-hander wound up going 18-6 in 2003, winning ten of those 18 in September and August.
A fateful postseason, and the only one for the Cubs ace.
Prior would go on that postseason to beat the Atlanta Braves and Greg Maddux 3-1 in his one NLDS appearance. Prior outdueled the former Cub, throwing a 1.00 ERA, going the full nine innings facing just 34 batters, and allowing just two hits.
In the fateful NLCS, Prior led the Cubs to a 2-0 lead in the Series, pitching in Game Two and giving up just two runs over seven innings. His next outing was Game 6. It was the last playoff contest in which Prior would ever appear and the only postseason he would pitch.
It would be 12 years before Chicago again reached the NLCS, and like in 2003 they were led by three remarkably good pitchers in Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, and Kyle Hendricks. Arrieta, of course, won the Cy Young that year and the Cubs, building on the momentum of 2015, would win the World Series in 2016 with those same three top-of-the-rotation pitchers.