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10/21/01, Revisited

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I still remember the last time I was totally crushed by the Mariners.

In fact, I remember it like it was yesterday.

The 2001 Seattle Mariners were one of the best teams any of us is ever going to see. You name it, they were good at it:

Runs: #1 in the league
BA: #1
OBP: #1
SLG: #4
SB: #1
ERA: #1
Defense: #1
Wins: #1

As much as it felt like the 2001 Mariners were always one piece away from being truly unbeatable, it's hard to look back and criticize Pat Gillick's midseason behavior (or lack thereof), because when a team stands at 76-30 at the trade deadline, swinging a trade or two runs the risk of shaking things up and spoiling what might be a very delicate clubhouse dynamic. Which isn't something you'll hear me say very often, but when a team is firing on all cylinders and playing near-flawless baseball for months at a time, I think you just have to go with what you've got and hope that whatever's keeping the team energized keeps up through the postseason.

The Mariners faced the biggest test of their will a few days after the deadline passed, when they blew a massive lead in Cleveland and lost by a run. Skeptics thought that would be the end of the magical run, that the M's wouldn't be able to handle such a crushing defeat, but the team came right back to win its next three games, a pretty impressive accomplishment, all things considered. That settled it - these Mariners were for real, and it didn't look like anything could slow them down.

Not even a little hiccup in the ALDS could stop their momentum. Despite getting shut out in game one and destroyed in game 3, Seattle got strong starts from Freddy Garcia and Jamie Moyer to put the pesky Indians away and advance to the ALCS. Once again, they had faced adversity and - instead of wilting under the pressure - overcame it rather convincingly, heading home to face a Yankees team that had finished 20 games behind Seattle in the regular season standings.

It was the perfect setup; the Mariners, one of the best teams of all time, were in good position to exorcise the demons that had haunted them since a six-game series loss to the Yankees the previous October. That was a series fraught with disappointment, from the seven-run eighth inning collapse in game 2 to the six-run seventh inning collapse in game 6. This time around, Mike Cameron would be better. Edgar Martinez would be better. Arthur Rhodes would be better. The 2001 Seattle Mariners weren't a fluke, and they were prepared to prove it on a national stage against the most storied franchise in sports history.

...and then bad things started happening. Andy Pettitte took control of game 1, Mike Mussina took control of game 2, and all of a sudden the Mariners were faced with the prospect of having to win four of five games to advance, with the Yankees now owning home-field advantage. It wasn't supposed to go like this, and after four innings of game 3, it looked like the M's were just dead in the water, having expended all of their energy just to get this far.

Five innings and 14 runs later, though, the Mariners had a big win and all the momentum in the world, finally deciding to show up and make a series of this thing. Coming back from a two-run mid-inning deficit to blow Orlando Hernandez out of the water was no small task, and the M's had succeeded. The team had new life, and everybody knew it. The stage was set for a critical fourth game, and if some guy named Paul Abbott could somehow manage to beat Roger Clemens in New York, then that would only go to prove that the 2001 Mariners truly were something special.

Abbott - owner of perhaps the luckiest 17-win season in baseball history - would post one of the strangest postseason pitching lines in baseball history, keeping the Yankees hitless through five innings, but walking eight. It was a problem that had plagued him through the year, and a disciplined New York offense worked him into a ton of deep counts. The issue was that they couldn't take advantage of their baserunners, thanks in part to a pair of mistakes on the basepaths in the second inning. The end result of it all was that Abbott matched zeroes with Clemens, and that after five innings, neither starter remained in the game.

Norm Charlton was one of the more unlikely stories in baseball in 2001, returning to Seattle to post a 3.02 ERA out of the bullpen after going under the knife on 23498234 separate occasions in the years leading up. Lou Piniella handed him the ball to start the bottom of the sixth, but three batters later, the Yankees had two on with just one out in a 0-0 game. Piniella turned to Jeff Nelson - who had a 2.76 ERA of his own that year - but he walked the first batter he faced, Shane Spencer, to load the bases. Scott Brosius wasn't anything special, but surely, a guy with that kind of clutch reputation was bound to lift a fly ball to the outfield to drive in a run at the very least, right?

No dice. Nelson induced one of the biggest 4-6-3's I can remember, getting the Mariners out of the inning while preserving the tie. It was precisely at that point that we all began to think that someone was watching over us and guiding our beloved M's to the Series. There couldn't possibly have been any other explanation.

The seventh inning came and went, and so did Ichiro and Mark McLemore in the top of the eighth. But then MVP candidate Bret Boone stepped into the box to face Ramiro Mendoza and launched a ball deep to left-center field that put the Mariners ahead. This was our series. The Yankees could take two in Seattle, but the M's were about to return the favor, and there was no stopping this ballclub once it got started. In 2001, you couldn't have done much better than handing a lead over to Arthur Rhodes and Kazuhiro Sasaki. That's exactly what Piniella did, and after Rhodes struck out noted nemesis David Justice to lead off the bottom of the inning, you had to feel like the game was in the bag.

Bernie Williams disagreed, and Arthur Rhodes' Yankee nightmare picked up where it left off. With one swing of the bat, the lead was erased and the Stadium fans came alive. Tino Martinez and Jorge Posada would go down quietly to end the eighth, but New York was sending Mariano Rivera out there to keep the M's at bay, and deep down, you knew that the bullpen would have to hold the fort until Rivera was out of the game and the lineup could face someone human.

Olerud groundout. Javier out bunting. Cameron pop out. That was fast. To the bottom of the ninth we go. Sasaki had slapped together a great season, but did he have two innings in him? Would he be able to match Rivera the way Abbott had matched the Rocket earlier in the same game?

Agony.

The Yankees built a quick lead on Aaron Sele in game 5 and went on to win 12-3. Four years later, we haven't seen the Mariners make it back to the playoffs.

And I still have a bitter taste in my mouth.

Game Boxscore

Biggest Contribution: Bret Boone, +25.2%
Biggest Suckfest: Kaz Sasaki, -35.8%
Most Important Hit: Boone homer, +28.5%
Most Important Pitch: Soriano homer, -36.2%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): -17.8%
Total Contribution by Hitters: -32.7%

(What is this?)