In the aftermath of a 116-win season and subsequent playoff loss, the Mariners re-branded their franchise with rookies like Ichiro Suzuki and Felix Hernandez.
April 2, 2001
It was spring, and the Mariners had a reputation to uphold. After Carlos Guillen bunted his way to the 2000 ALCS, the M's stumbled in a six-game series to the New York Yankees. Now, looking to regain their standing in the AL West and make a return to the playoffs, they had little inkling of the success that lay before them.
In front of a packed Safeco Field, Ichiro Suzuki stepped up to the plate for the first time in his MLB career. The 27-year-old outfielder carried nine years of pro ball experience in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball league, where he was famed for a .353/.421/.522 career slash line, 118 home runs, and a whisker under 200 stolen bases.
Facing Ichiro was Oakland right-hander Jim Mecir. In little more than an inning, the 31-year-old reliever served up a pair of singles to the right fielder. Later in his career, Ichiro would be quoted for defending his preference for small ball while asserting that he had the choice, as well as the ability, to hit 40 home runs a season. That evening, however, his contributions were just enough -- the Mariners took their first of 116 wins on a 5-4 edge over the A's.
As M's fans collected his rookie cards, the rookie collected titles: All-Star, Gold Glover, Silver Slugger, Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player. A seasoned player in a new environment, he led the league with 242 hits, 56 stolen bases, and a .350 average.
May 2, 2002
One year later, the Mariners found themselves battling for another division title, their hopes significantly dampened after another concession to the Yankees in the 2001 ALCS. Although the year was capped with a respectable 93-69 finish, they were hardly the only team enjoying a taste of success. The A's rose to the top of the American League with 103 wins; behind them, the Angels took 99 wins.
After a month of play, the M's found a spark of their former selves in a six-game road trip to the East Coast. Their first victim was 23-year-old Jon Rauch, who had yet to lose in a contest in his inaugural MLB season with the Chicago White Sox. For the first time in team history, the Mariners catapulted seven home runs, a feat they haven't repeated since.
Taking center stage were second baseman Bret Boone and center fielder Mike Cameron, who went back-to-back twice in the same inning -- first attacking Rauch, then his successor, southpaw Jim Parque.
After making his mark in franchise history, Cameron wormed his way into the league's record books, finishing the 15-9 win with four home runs and becoming the 13th player to do so. Twenty-one days later, Los Angeles Dodgers' Shawn Green added his name to the list, making 2002 the only season to see two batters accomplish a four-homer performance.
September 28, 2003
Say what you will about the Mariners' ability to convert would-be superstars into sub-par contributors, but the magic potion they hand to aging players seems to work wonders. At 40 years old, Jamie Moyer became the winningest pitcher in Seattle history.
His 21-7 record eked past two 20-game winners from the past six years: a 1997 Randy Johnson and his 2001 self. Central to his efforts was both the Mariners' 93-69 record and their five-man rotation of Gil Meche, Freddy Garcia, Joel Pineiro, Ryan Franklin, and Moyer himself.
Despite their high ranking in another dominant season, the Mariners would miss a trip to the postseason, foiled again by the Athletics' 96-66 finish and a 95-67 wild card reservation by the second-place Boston Red Sox. On the last day of the season, Moyer took the mound against Oakland with a 20-7 record.
The left-hander tossed six innings, his shortest start in over a month and also his poorest. He allowed the A's seven hits, three runs, two walks, and struck out three batters before handing the game to Rafael Soriano. Fortunately for the starter and his 'pen, the Mariners had couched the performance in nine runs, a comfortable 6-run lead that carried Moyer to his record-breaking win.
October 1, 2004
The spotlight shifted back to Ichiro in 2004 as the M's record plummeted to the bottom of the division again. This time, he was chasing an 84-year-old record, that of Hall of Fame infielder George Sisler.
In 1920, "Gorgeous George" inked his name in the record book with 257 hits on the year, snapping Ty Cobb's nine-year hold with 248 hits in a single 154-game season. Sisler decorated his last game of 1920 with three hits and three stolen bases, a season high for the St. Louis Browns' first baseman. Even more remarkably, Sisler was called upon to pitch the ninth inning, striking out two batters and recording his second career save. Over the next eight decades, only five players came within reach of tying his hit record, topping out at 254 in 1930.
Two days before the conclusion of the 2004 regular season, Sisler's family sat in the stands of Safeco Field. Ichiro had 256 hits to his name, and it seemed inevitable that the speedy right fielder would capitalize on an opportunity to break the record, especially with so few days left to do it and a shot at the playoffs well out of reach.
They didn't have to wait long. Against the Texas Rangers' 28-year-old Ryan Drese, Ichiro smoked a leadoff single in the first inning. The Ichimeter shone neon green: 257. By the third inning, fans were on their feet. Teammates hugged the railing of the dugout. Ichiro worked a 3-2 count -- and then, a hit up the middle, under the glove of Michael Young, and into the history books.
Fireworks exploded over the Safeco Field sign, but it was just the first of several records Ichiro would set in October. He finished the game with 259 hits, logging several more to establish the new single season hit record at 262, where no one else has come within 40 hits of touching it. The 262nd hit was also the 924th in his major league career, a new benchmark for MLB players in their first four years of service.
August 4, 2005
From the get-go, King Felix was spared the comfort of pitching with adequate run support.
The 19-year-old cracked the major leagues as the youngest MLB pitcher in 21 years. He was coming off of 19 games in his first Triple-A stint, escaping the All-Star game with a bout of shoulder bursitis. Despite the setback, his accolades were bright and loud: Baseball America's #30 MLB prospect at 17 years old, #2 overall prospect at 19 years old, best fastball and curveball in the 2004-2005 California League, best fastball and curveball in the Mariners' system following the 2004 season.
Comerica Park turned out a decent crowd for a Thursday matinee, seating nearly 30,000 for the rookie's debut. The Tigers were floundering at the bottom of the AL Central, looking for a bright spot after five consecutive losses.
At first, Felix obliged. He kicked off the first inning with a base hit to infielder Placido Polanco, followed by a pair of walks and an RBI single to Magglio Ordonez. His first strikeout was close behind, taking Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez down with three pitches.
As the rookie settled into his routine, the M's fumbled at the plate. In the last year of his major league career, Detroit starter Sean Douglass crafted six scoreless innings against Seattle, allowing a solo home run to Raul Ibanez to cap his fourth win of the season. Felix exited in the fifth inning, finishing his first MLB outing with three hits, two runs, two walks, and a fourth strikeout against former Mariner Carlos Guillen.
Though the Mariners found themselves on the bitter end of a 3-1 loss, the club had witnessed the spark that put Felix on top prospect lists, the same spark that would ignite a promising career for the young pitcher. Seattle Times' staff reporter Greg Bishop best captured the feeling of the day:
"And by the end, after Hernandez justified all the hype and hoopla his debut accumulated, after he allowed only one earned run and still lost 3-1 to the Tigers in front of 28,148, that's what the Mariners came away with. That their future ace will not be ruffled easily. Even with history in the balance and the baseball world watching closely."