Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
I played fantasy baseball for the first time 10 seasons ago, and though I've won championships and had better teams since then, nothing really can duplicate the excitement that season brought.
Most of the enthusiasm came from owning the electric Cubs duo of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, two under 27-year-old starters with blazing fastballs and bright futures.
The announcement that Wood will retire after the Cubs' weekend series with the White Sox made me think back to that exuberant 2003 season and the dominance that Wood and Prior brought to fantasy baseball.
In arguably his best season -- one of two where he exceeded 200 innings -- Wood went 14-11 with a 3.20 ERA and 1.19 WHIP. He allowed just 152 hits in 211 innings and batters hit .203 against him.
Though he walked 100 batters, he more than made up for it by fanning 266.
Mark Prior's numbers were even better, as the right-hander went 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 245 strikeouts in 211 1/3 innings.
Together, the tandem aces captured the hearts of Cubs fans, creating a buzz around the team that hadn't been there in years -- even the Sammy Sosa-led Cubbies of the late 90s only made the playoffs one time.
The two fireballers were on the cover of Sports Illustrated on July 7, each holding a flaming baseball under the headline "Chicago Heat."
Sadly, neither man would eclipse 200 innings again. Wood became a full-time reliever in 2007 and Prior hasn't pitched at the major league level since 2006.
Still, nothing can take away that summer of 2003.
Here are the 10 best games each pitcher threw that season:
April 12 - 8.0 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 4 BB, 13 K
May 15 - 7.0 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 13 K
May 26 - 7.0 IP, 1 H, 1 ER, 4 BB, 10 K
June 7 - 7.2 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 3 BB, 11 K
June 18 - 9.0 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 9 K
July 9 - 9.0 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 3 BB, 12 K
July 19 - 9.0 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 5 BB, 8 K
Aug. 27 - 7.0 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 4 BB, 11 K
Sept. 17 - 9.0 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 11 K
Sept. 23 - 7.0 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 4 BB, 12 K
April 9 - 9.0 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 12 K
April 19 - 9.0 IP, 6 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 6 K
June 26 - 8.0 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 16 K
Aug. 10 - 9.0 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 9 K
Aug. 15 - 9.0 IP, 7 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 5 K
Aug. 20 - 7.0 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 9 K
Aug. 26 - 8.0 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 6 K
Sept. 1 - 8.0 IP, 5 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 8 K
Sept. 16 - 8.2 IP, 8 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 13 K
Sept. 21 - 7.2 IP, 6 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 14 K
Wood was more spectacularly dominant in his best outings, but Prior was more consistent throughout the season.
Wood had 11 double-digit strikeout efforts and gave up one earned run or less in 15 starts, but he also gave up four earned runs or more nine times.
Prior had three fewer double-digit strikeout games but he allowed three earned runs or less in 25 of his 30 starts.
Wood's K/9 in 2003 was 11.3, while Prior's was 10.4, and the two were No. 1 and No. 2 in the majors in strikeouts that season.
From a pure strikeout perspective, there is only one pair of teammates today that can dominate like the Cubs hurlers did in 2003.
The closest thing to Wood and Prior in 2012 is the duo of Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez of the Washington Nationals. Strasburg and Gonzalez are the only teammates who appear on the list of top 13 strikeout pitchers this season -- Strasburg ranks sixth in the majors while Gonzalez is second through Wednesday.
However, Strasburg and Gonzalez have a long way to go to maintain their K/9 averages -- Strasburg is at 10.5 in 48 innings and Gonzalez is at 11.1 in 48 2/3.
In the final appearance of his career on Friday, Wood struck out Dayan Viciedo on three pitches, throwing a 95 mph fastball and two filthy off-speed pitches and then exiting to a rousing ovation with his son in his arms as thousands of Cubs fans got one last chance to serenade the pitcher they once thought would take them to the promised land for the first time in a century.
Though injuries prevented both he and Prior from reaching their potential, relegating Wood to the fantasy wasteland of middle relief and Prior to a career of failed comeback attempts in the minor leagues, nothing can duplicate the magic of owning both of them in 2003.
Ten years later, it's good to see that Wood is hanging up his cleats on his own terms, going out with 86 wins, 63 saves, a career K/9 of 10.3 -- second best all-time to Randy Johnson -- and some very special fantasy baseball memories.
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