Date of Game: Wednesday, April 9, 2003
Location: Veterans Stadium
Opponent: Atlanta Braves
Final Score: Phillies 16, Braves 2
Winning Pitcher: Vicente Padilla
Losing Pitcher: Greg Maddux
Home Runs: Pat Burrell (2), Jim Thome (2)
Phillies Starting Lineup
Jimmy Rollins, ss
Placido Polanco, 2b
Bobby Abreu, rf
Jim Thome, 1b
Pat Burrell, lf
Mike Lieberthal, c
Tomas Perez, 3b
Marlon Byrd, cf
Vicente Padilla, p
Braves Starting Lineup
Rafael Furcal, ss
Robert Fick, 1b
Gary Sheffield, rf
Chipper Jones, lf
Andruw Jones, cf
Vinny Castilla, 3b
Mark DeRosa, 2b
Henry Blanco, c
Greg Maddux, p
About This Game: They say you only get one chance to make a first impression. In the history of Philadelphia sports, very few athletes have made a more positive first impression than Jim Thome. Never known for being major spenders in the free agent market, the Phillies stunned the baseball world after the 2002 season when they lured the powerful first baseman away from a Cleveland Indians club he'd spent all or part of the past dozen seasons with. The signing of Thome was not surprisingly lauded by the Philadelphia fanbase, who were greatly appreciative of the slugger's decision to come to a team and city that for many years Major League Baseball players seemingly tried to avoid at all costs.
Of course, once all the initial hoopla dies down, it becomes a matter of producing once the games start. Thome wasted little time in that department, homering in his first exhibition at-bat as a Phillie, then doubling in his first regular season at-bat, while tripling in his first Veterans Stadium plate appearance. Through his first seven regular season games in a Phillies uniform, Thome collected 10 hits, but one thing he had yet to do was hit a home run. On a cold April night at the Vet, that problem would be taken care of and then some as the Phils cruised to a blowout victory and battered a future Hall of Famer in the process.
Obviously, a team's place in the standings seven games into a season means very little, but for the record the Phillies entered play on April 9, 2003 with a record of 4-3. That was good enough to place them in a three-way tie atop the National League East with the Montreal Expos and New York Mets. The Atlanta Braves sat in fourth at 3-5. This Wednesday night matchup at Veterans Stadium would be the second of a three-game set between the Phils and Braves. The series opener had gone to the Phillies by a score of 4-3 in 10 innings, with an RBI single by Tomas Perez scoring Pat Burrell with the winning run. Jose Mesa got the victory, Kevin Gryboski was saddled with the loss. The pitching matchup for the middle game appeared to be a good one as 2002 All-Star Vicente Padilla took the mound for the Phils, while the legendary Greg Maddux toed the rubber for Atlanta.
Padilla allowed a one-out double to Robert Fick in the top of the first, but was able to strand him at second and hold the Braves scoreless. The Phillies got off to a positive start in their half of the first as Jimmy Rollins grounded to second, but was safe as Fick dropped Mark DeRosa's throw for an error. Rollins went to third when Placido Polanco followed with a single, then came in to score on a fielder's choice RBI by Bobby Abreu. Two batters later, Pat Burrell connected for his first home run of the 2003 season, a two-run shot that made it 3-0. After Padilla retired the Braves in order in the second, the Phils increased the lead to 4-0 thanks to an RBI single by Rollins. They'd load the bases with two outs in the bottom of the second, but Maddux was able to escape further damage by getting Jim Thome looking to retire the side.
An RBI double by Gary Sheffield got Atlanta on the board in the third, but Rollins picked up an RBI double of his own in the fourth before coming around to score on a Polanco single to make it 6-1. That score held up until the bottom of the sixth, when the Phillies knocked Maddux out of the game once and for all. With two outs, and two runners aboard, Burrell launched his second home run of the game for a 9-1 cushion. Mike Lieberthal followed with a single that sent Maddux to the showers. Jung Bong took over and gave up an infield single to Tomas Perez before walking Marlon Byrd to load the bases. It didn't seem to be a huge deal with Padilla due up, but Bong balked Lieberthal home to put the Phils in double figures at 10-1. Padilla ended up taking a called third strike to end the inning, but not before four Phillies had crossed the plate. Maddux's night ended with him allowing 10 runs (seven earned) on 12 hits over 5 and 2/3 innings.
The Braves got their second run of the night in the seventh, as Fick's two-out RBI single scored Matt Franco, who had doubled one out earlier. That was no worry to the Phillies, as Polanco struck out but reached on a wild pitch by Joey Dawley with one out in the bottom of the frame before moving up to second on an Abreu walk. Thome stepped to the plate next and sent an opposite-field drive to the seats in left-center for his first home run as a Phillie. The three-run shot made it 13-2 and drew a standing ovation from the shivering Vet crowd. One inning later, an RBI double by Abreu scored Rollins before Thome again went deep to left-center off Dawley, giving the Phils a 16-2 lead. Rheal Cormier and Eric Junge each tossed a perfect inning in relief to finish off the rout.
Padilla picked up his first win of the season against one loss, scattering 10 hits while striking out nine. It was a rare solid outing for Padilla in the first half of '03, but he'd end the season at 14-12 with a 3.62 ERA thanks to a strong second half. Maddux fell to 0-3 on the campaign to go along with an 11.05 ERA, but he'd figure things out soon enough to go 16-11 with a 3.96 ERA in what turned out to be his final season in Atlanta. Thome's home runs were the first of 47 he'd hit in 2003, tops in the National League. He also knocked in 131. Burrell, meanwhile, spiraled to the worst season of his career, hitting a puzzling .209 with 21 homers and 64 RBI in 146 games.
The Braves were able to salvage the final game of the series the next night, as they came away with a 6-2 victory. They went on to win the 12th of their 14 straight division titles in 2003 with a record of 101-61. The Phillies came agonizingly close to ending a decade-long playoff drought in '03, but had to settle for third in the NL East at 86-76 as they were edged out for second and the Wild Card by the eventual World Champion Florida Marlins. That drought would continue until 2007, when the Phils rallied to take home the first of what as of this writing is five consecutive NL East titles. To date, the 2003 season is also the last in which the Phillies have finished lower than second in the division.
Personal Recollection: I was at this game, the first one on the partial plan for the 2003 season. The spring of '03 was a rather cold one, and this night was no exception. I've never been one to have a problem with it being a little cold out, so that sort of thing doesn't bother me, but I will say it was frigid at the Vet that night. If not the coldest Phillies game I've ever attended, definitely near the top. Or the bottom if you want to look at it that way. When doing research for this feature, I found an article saying the first pitch temperature was 46 degrees. If that was the case, there had to be a tremendous wind blowing because it felt at least 20 degrees cooler than that.
A lot of these Random Past Games I'll write about feature are closely contested battles with some sort of dramatic twist, a key point where things turned in favor of the Phillies. Not so on this night. The Phils jumped on Greg Maddux early and never let up. I remember there being a lot of talk after this game that perhaps this was going to be the end of the road for Maddux, that time had passed him by. While he wasn't nearly at the level he reached in his prime, Maddux did end up proving he had a little something left in the tank over the rest of 2003 and the next few years.
Pat Burrell hit a couple bombs in this game and I remember thinking how scary the lineup was going to be with he and Jim Thome hitting back-to-back. Of course, it never really materialized as neither player ever seemed to really be hot or healthy at the same time while they were teammates.
I guess if there was any drama in this game, it was wondering when Thome would hit his first home run as a Phillie. He'd just missed in his first at-bat at the Vet against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Home Opener a few days earlier, hitting a triple off the top of the wall in the deepest part of left-center. In the fourth inning of this game, he smoked a ball to deep right that got knocked down in the wind. Then he finally connected in the seventh. It wasn't one of those majestic towering drives we'd become accustomed to, just a screaming liner the other way that got out in a hurry. The second homer was almost a carbon copy of the first. The paid crowd on this night was 14,724 and by the time Thome hit his home runs, there was at the most 1/3 of that number in the stands. So his first homers as a Phillie weren't actually seen by a whole lot of people. As you probably figured, I was one of those still in attendance.
Thome, of course, went on to have a great 2003 season, very nearly carrying the Phillies to the playoffs on his back down the stretch. He got off to a great start in 2004, but was hampered by injuries in the second half of that season and in 2005 before being traded to the White Sox to make room for Ryan Howard. While trading Thome was clearly the right move, it was a shame he couldn't have been with the Phils when they won it all in 2008. He's returned to the club for the 2012 season in an attempt to get that ring, the one thing missing from a resume that should ultimately land him in Cooperstown. If that does indeed happen, I'm sure there won't be too many players anyone would be happier for than him. It would also be a fitting conclusion for a player who was the big reason baseball once again became relevant in Philadelphia.
That's my story on April 9, 2003. Do you remember this game? If so, feel free to share your own recollections!