Friday, June 3, 2011

2001 ALDS: The juggernaut slips by

The 2001 Seattle Mariners were a juggernaut. Plain and simple. Some teams have spikes in their victory totals in expansion years, as the diluted talent around the league makes the good teams seem that much better. That wasn't the case in 2001; the effects of the 1998 expansion had settled down by then. No, the Mariners were simply great, following the lead of rookie sensation Ichiro Suzuki and cruising to a record-tying 116 wins.

When the 2001 playoffs began, the question didn't seem to be whether the Mariners would win the title, but if anybody could challenge them along the way. But something funny happened along the way: the Cleveland Indians gave them everything they could handle.

In 2001, Cleveland was on the tail end of a dynasty that had started in 1995. Thought not nearly as good as their World Series teams of 1995 and 1997, the Indians still had several holdovers from those teams in 2001 and were in the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years. Though they weren't expected to give the Mariners much of a fight, their ace, Bartolo Colon, shut the Mariners out in Game 1 to give Cleveland the series lead.

Four first-inning runs helped Seattle to a 5-1 victory in Game 2, but then Cleveland pounded four Seattle pitchers for a 17-2 win in Game 3. Suddenly, the 116-game winners were one loss away from a shocking elimination.

The Game 1 starters returned for Game 4, and Colon again held the Mariners scoreless for the first six innings. Seattle finally got to their nemesis for three seventh-inning runs and pulled away for a 6-2 win, sending the series back to Seattle for Game 5.

The Game
The deciding game was one of those where the score looked closer than it actually was. Seattle kept getting baserunner after baserunner, but they had trouble getting that clutch hit to put the game away.

In the bottom of the second, Cleveland's Chuck Finley walked the first two batters, then hit a batter to load the bases with nobody out. He struck out the next two hitters before Mark McLemore hit a first-pitch single to score two runs. The Mariners still had two runners on base with the great Ichiro at bat, but Mike Cameron was fooled by the old "pitcher steps toward one base and throws to the base behind him" play and was picked off to end the inning.

Cleveland came right back to score a run in the top of the third and loaded the bases with one out and future Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar batting. The speedy Alomar grounded into a double play to end the threat. Little did they know it at the time, but that was Cleveland's last chance; they never got a runner past first base the rest of the game.

Meanwhile, Seattle kept doing its best to keep Cleveland in the game. The Mariners loaded the bases with one out in the fifth but couldn't bring a run home, then left two runners on in the sixth. They finally broke through in the seventh when Mr. Mariner himself, Edgar Martinez, drove home his team's third run with a single. Even still, the Mariners left two more runners on base that inning.

Though Cleveland was technically still in the game - the score was only 3-1, after all - the Indians would have to come back against Seattle's vaunted bullpen. Jeff Nelson, Arthur Rhodes, and Kaz Sazaki had been phenomenal at the ends of games for Seattle all season, and this game was no exception, as they swept through the final three innings while giving up only one hit between them. Seattle held on to win 3-1.

Perhaps they were worn down by the five-game epic against Cleveland, or perhaps Cleveland simply exposed them and their lofty record as fraudulant. Either way, Seattle didn't fare well in the ALCS. Though heavy favorites against the three-time defending champion Yankees, the Mariners lost the first two games at home on their way to a surprisingly meek five-game defeat. Seattle only batted .211 as a team in the series, a number that was inflated by the Mariners' 14-run outburst in their only win in Game 3.

It was a disappointing end to a magical season, and it marked the beginning of a dry spell for the Mariners. Though they won 93 games each of the next two seasons, they missed the playoffs in the tough AL West. In fact, the Mariners haven't been back to the postseason since their 116-victory season.

The Rundown

19. Seattle 3, Cleveland 1 (2001 ALDS)
20. Chicago 5, San Francisco 3 (1998 NL Wild Card tiebreaker)
21. N.Y. Yankees 7, Oakland 5 (2000 ALDS)
22. Los Angeles 4, Houston 0 (1981 NL West Division Series)
23. Montreal 3, Philadelphia 0 (1981 NL East Division Series)
24. N.Y. Yankees 7, Milwaukee 3 (1981 AL East Division Series)
25. Seattle 9, California 1 (1995 AL West tiebreaker)
26. Chicago 5, Atlanta 1 (2003 NLDS)
27. Houston 12, Atlanta 3 (2004 NLDS)
28. N.Y. Mets 5, Cincinnati 0 (1999 NL Wild Card tiebreaker)
29. Cleveland 8, Boston 3 (1948 AL tiebreaker)
30. Houston 7, Los Angeles 1 (1980 NL West tiebreaker)

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