10 years ago today, the worst season any team has had in the last 50 years had its greatest moment of joy. 10 years ago today, the 2003 Tigers made a tremendous comeback to ensure they wouldn’t set a new modern record for losses in a season.
120 losses is the modern barrier no team wants the cross. That’s how many games the 1962 Mets lost: 120 loses versus just 40 wins. That’s the most by any team since 1900. (If you go back earlier the 1899 Cleveland Spiders went 20-134, but they hardly count because their owners bought the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1898-99 off-season and put all the talent there. 120 losses are the most for a real team.)
For most of the season, it looked like the Tigers would break the Mets record. As June neared its end, they had a record of 18-61, on pace. They’d alternate death spirals with brief gurgles of hope. But their last hope to avoid infamy seemed to come to an end in September, when they dropped 16 of 17 decisions, giving them a record of 38-118.
To avoid tying the Mets mark, the Tigers would need to win five of their last six, something they hadn’t done all year. Hell, they hadn’t done that in the last two months of 2002, either.
But the Tigers took it one game at a time. On Sept. 23, they clobbered the Royals, 15-6. The next day Detroit won their last road game of the year, 4-3. Now sporting a 40-118 record, the Tigers just needed to win three of their last four games to avoid tying the Mets.
Now came a four-game series to end the year against the visiting Twins in the home confines of Comerica Park. The first game was a joyful 5-4 win in 11 innings. But the next day turned it around, an 11-inning heartbreaking loss (also by a 5-4 score). The team had no more margin for error.
With a record of 41-119, the Tigers were still in the hunt for a new record of 121 losses.
That set the stage for Sept. 27, 2003: the next to last game of the year. If they won this, the worst the Tigers could do is tie the Mets’ mark.
Early on, it looked like a complete disaster for the Tigers, as the Twins scored in the first and then padded their lead in the middle frames. As the game entered the middle of the fifth it was 8-0 Minnesota, and you don’t have to be a baseball genius to figure out that the best team in baseball wasn’t likely to comeback from that big a deficit, let alone the worst team in baseball.
But the Tigers weren’t fully down yet. And they had one advantage. While Twins manager Ron Gardenhire pulled almost all of his starters to rest them (Minnesota was gearing up for the playoffs, after all), Tiger skipper Alan Trammell left his entire starting lineup in. He may as well – this game meant a lot for Detroit.
In the bottom of the seventh, though, the Tigers really began to rally. They combined a double, two singles, and a well-time Minnesota fielding error into three runs. Now it was 8-4, and the Tigers were halfway there. Then again, they only had six outs left to work with. WPA gave them just a four percent chance to win.
After the Tigers bullpen shutout the Twins for the third straight inning, the Detroit bats made the game genuinely interesting in the bottom of the eighth.
Shortstop Ramon Santiago led off with a walk. OK, that’s nice. But he was immediately gobbled up on a fielder’s choice grounder by center fielder Alex Sanchez. Now they had five outs to play with and were still down by four. But this is when things really began to turn around.
First Sanchez stole second. WPA readjusted Detroit’s winning odds up to five percent. Hey, baby steps people, it’s baby steps. Next, second baseman Warren Morris drew a walk. That makes it an eight percent chance to win. Anything that moves the odds up is appreciated.
Well, Twins reliever Juan Rincon didn’t have it, so time for a new pitcher: hurler J.C. Romero. In 2002, Romero was a bullpen star, posting a 1.89 ERA in 81 innings, but 2003 had proved to be a rough go of it for him. Romero would end the season with an ERA of 5.00, and never was he rougher than in this game.
Facing Tigers star Bobby Higginson, Romero issued a walk to load the bases. Now it’s a 14 percent chance to win. Mind you, that still sucks, but it sounds so much better than four percent. And Romero still couldn’t find the plate. He walked Dmitri Young to drive in a run, making it 8-5. Oh, and that put the tying run on first, with still just one out. Suddenly, the Tigers had a 24 percent chance of winning. Heck, the odds have skyrocketed from sucky to lousy.
Up next was Craig Monroe, the man who drove in their first run back in the fifth. And he worked his magic again, with a sharply hit ball to center. Runners were only able to advance one base, but it’s now 8-6 with the bases still loaded with one out. Don’t look now folks, but the Tigers have a 37 percent chance to win the game.
And up came first baseman Carlos Pena. The future AL home run champ was still just a young player, barely more than a prospect, but he still had plenty of talent. More importantly, his aim was true—he laced a single that brought home Higginson and Young, with Monroe scampering all the way to third.
Guess what? The game was now tied, 8-8. Incredibly, the worst team in decades had fought their way back from this huge hole. And with one out, they now had a 75 percent chance to win the game. Suddenly things looked bleak for the Twins.
Incredibly, Gardenhire left Romero in the game. With a chance to be the big hero, Shane Halter came to the plate hoping to drive home the leading run. Instead, he struck out looking. Apparently, Gardenhire knew what he was doing when he left Romero in. Finally, Brandon Inge grounded out. The Tigers had batted a round and tied the game, but they still didn’t have the lead. They just might lose 121 games on the year yet.
In the top of the ninth, the Twins wasted a leadoff double by young Justin Monreau, and it was 8-8 heading into the bottom of the ninth. At this point, the Twins got rid of Romero and replaced him with a steely veteran presence, ancient pitcher Jesse Orosco. Seemingly around since the 19th century, Orosco was the oldest player in baseball at age 46. Every time he stepped on the field, he broke his own career record for games pitched.
This would be appearance No. 1,252 for Orosco, still more than any other pitcher ever.
Leading off, Santiago flew out against Orosco. One away. But Alex Sanchez drew a walk. This was interesting because the Tigers needed just one more run, and as the team’s best base stealing threat, Sanchez could put himself into scoring position with a swipe. But then again, crafty Orosco was a lefty, and hence it should be harder to run on him. Sure enough, Orosco threw to first as often as he threw to home. He wanted Sanchez close to the bag.
But for Alan Trammell, this was no time to manage scared. He gave Sanchez the green light—and Sanchez delivered, swiping second for his 43rd steal of the year.
At the plate, all eyes were on second baseman Warren Morris. A wash out from the Pirates, he was no one’s idea of a big bat, but if he could just deliver here. He fouled one off to fall behind on the count, 1-2, and then Alan Trammell showed just how fearless he was going to manage this inning—he sent Sanchez to third.
If Sanchez is out and the Tigers lose, Trammell will never hear the end of it. But Sanchez wasn’t out—he was safe at third. Now the Tigers didn’t even need a single, just a nicely hit fly ball would do.
It was up to Morris. He took one for a ball to even it up, 2-2. Then Orosco threw another pitch and Morris swung—and missed for strike three.
But wait! Morris wasn’t the only one who missed. So did Twins catcher Rob Bowen. Orosco’s pitch was wild (Morris was swinging wildly at this one apparently) and the ball went all the way to the backstop.
Well, you don’t have to ask Sanchez to do anything else. He tore lose for the plate and scored easily. The Tigers had done it, come back from the dead to win, 9-8. Rather fittingly, the Tigers won the next game, too, ending with 119 losses, just under the 1962 Mets.
Oh, and as for Orosco, this 1,252nd game would prove to be his last. Thus the man with the all-time record for games pitched in saw his career end on a walk-off wild pitch. That sure was some ending to some game—and it was 10 years ago today.