Ten Greatest Comebacks in MLB History: #5

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Sometimes, comebacks have far reaching implications. A team that has dominated throughout the season can find itself in a very familiar position: up late in the contest. Then, their opponent, for some reason or another, finds a way to roar back and defeat them. Perhaps they are truly emulating the biblical hero David, slaying the giant Goliath with a simple stone and a prayer. Either that, or they have all absorbed some of the “secret stuff” Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny give to the Looney Tunes characters in Space Jam. In any case, fans love it when these types of comebacks occur. It’s even more intriguing when they directly impact the confidence of a dominant franchise.

August 5, 2001: Seattle Mariners vs. Cleveland Indians

Such is the case with today’s story, which ranks number five on the Baseball Reference list of comebacks. In 2001, the Seattle Mariners were the best team in all of baseball, bar none. The Cleveland Indians, while far from terrible, were nowhere near as good. Both teams would wind up in the playoffs. Ironically enough, they would face each other. The Mariners would win that series, but cough up the American League pennant to the New York Yankees. The question of how a team that did so well all year could stumble so severely remains even to this day. However, this writer postulates that it was being on the short end of this comeback that created such a scenario.

The 2001 Mariners: A Dominant Force

First, let’s dive in and examine what made the 2001 Mariners so good. Some might argue that they were the best single season team in the Modern Era. Had they won the World Series, this opinion might be solidified. In any case, it’s definitely not without grounds. For one thing, these Mariners are tied with the 1906 Chicago Cubs for most wins in a single season. They went 116–46, including a 15-game winning streak from late May to early June.

Their offense was teeming with terrific players. However, they did not win on the strength of their power. Ironically enough, it was simple contact that pushed the Mariners forward. Led by Rookie of the Year Ichiro Suzuki and his .350 average, the Mariners proved that you don’t have to hit the ball a long way to be productive. Add in the most potent pitching staff in the game, including 20-game winner Jamie Moyer, and you had the absolute best team in baseball.

The 2001 Indians: Powerful Players with Limited Support

Where the 2001 Indians are concerned, they also had a high energy, run producing offense. In fact, they finished second to Seattle in baserunners scored and tied them for the best percentage in that category. The difference here was that Cleveland relied heavily on the home run ball, crushing 212 of them that season. Hall of Famer Jim Thome led the way with 49 dingers. Right fielder Juan Gonzalez had 35, while designated hitter Ellis Burks had 28. So, this was an offense that could strike at any time, and do so dramatically.

However, their starting pitching was a massive problem. Two members of the Cleveland rotation posted ERA’s well above six. Even CC Sabathia, who won 17 games, struggled to post an ERA below 4.50. However, all was not lost, as they carried a magnificent bullpen. All of their regular relievers finished with ERA+ numbers above league average. They also had a penchant for doing well in high leverage situations. It’s telling that they had the second most of these scenarios in the league and still finished with the third highest save conversion percentage. So, they carried water guns of relief when the fire got too hot for the rotation.

The Contest’s Stakes

So it is that we arrive at Sunday, August 5, 2001. It was the nationally-televised evening game and the matchup was compelling, to say the least. The Mariners sought their 81st win. Meanwhile, the Indians were looking to keep pace with an equally talented Minnesota Twins team in a tight AL Central battle. They entered this contest just a game and a half behind. It must have been incentive enough, for they wound up committing one of the greatest comebacks in MLB history. The story of this unlikely of comebacks is incredible. So, let’s get into it.

Seattle manager Lou Piniella sent Aaron Sele to the mound. Sele, a two-time All-Star, had finished fifth in Cy Young voting with the Texas Rangers two years prior. Meanwhile, Cleveland manager Charlie Manuel countered with Dave Burba. Burba was the dictionary definition of a journeyman, playing 15 seasons for six different teams. Ironically enough, he’d started his career with the Mariners in 1990. However, now, he was tasked with stopping them. Considering their fearsome reputation, this would be a tall order. It was made even taller by the fact that he came into this game having lost six of eight decisions.

A One-Sided Rough-Up

The Mariners wasted no time in shellacking Burba. Mike Cameron, Tom Lampkin, and Ichiro all took advantage of RBI opportunities in the second inning. However, the onslaught continued in the third as the Mariners scored eight more times, five of which came before the first out was recorded. The fuse had been lit and the Mariners led by 12 going to the fourth inning. Thome got the Indians on the board with a homer. That small bit of hope was then dashed thanks to two more Mariner runs off of Indian reliever Mike Bacsik in the fifth. The score was now 14–2 and the game was only half over. From this moment on, most teams would cut their losses and move on. However, on this night, the Indians were not about to go down quietly.

When Comebacks Begin

Things remained quiet through the seventh inning stretch. Then, Russell Branyan cranked a solo shot off Sele, making it 14–3. That was followed by two quick outs, and then the Indians loaded the bases. This prompted Piniella to go to his bullpen for the first time, sending John Halama to the hill. His first opponent was Cleveland utility man Jolbert Cabrera, who’d entered the game to replace Alomar. He promptly cracked an offering into left field to score two more runs, making it 14–5. In the eighth, Thome picked up his second homer, followed by a two-run shot courtesy of outfielder Marty Cordova. Then, after two more reached, Halama left and was replaced by Norm Charlton. Omar Vizquel doubled home another run, and all of a sudden, it was 14–9. Things were quickly heading south for the Mariners, who had led by 12 runs at one point.

Comebacks: The Nearly Impossible Ending

The action would move on to the ninth from there. Charlton gave up a leadoff hit to Ed Taubensee, yet quickly got two outs. It seemed as if Seattle would escape. However, Cordova doubled to chase Charlton, and new reliever Jeff Nelson walked the first batter he saw. With the bases loaded, Einar Diaz stepped to the plate and ripped a base hit to left field. This scored two and made it 14–11. Mariners’ closer Kazuhiro Sasaki was called upon to stop the bleeding. However, even he could not stop the Indians on this night. He gave up a single to Kenny Lofton, and then Vizquel followed that with a bases clearing triple. A game that had been 12–0 at one point was now tied at 14  heading to extra innings.

The tenth and top of the eleventh passed without incident. In the bottom of the inning, Piniella called upon Jose Paniagua to keep things knotted up. It started innocently enough, with a pop out. However, things quickly turned dicey for the Mariners as back-to-back hits from Lofton and Vizquel put them on the ropes. The next batter was Cabrera, who, again, had not even started the game. On the first pitch from Paniagua, he laced a base hit into left field, scoring Lofton and giving the Indians an improbable 15–14 victory. In the bottom of the seventh, they had a 0.03% chance to win. Now, they found themselves on top.

Comebacks: Drawing Lines

Drawing a line between comebacks and future events can be difficult. However, in this case, it is somewhat easy. Considering the 2001 playoffs, there almost had to have been some mental residue from this game permeating the Mariners. They blew a 12-run lead here, and were actually statistically outplayed by Cleveland in their first round matchup. Losing the ALCS by three games was merely the icing on this crumbling cake. To think that it all started on a sunny Sunday by Lake Erie with one of the most amazing comebacks of all time.

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Players/Managers Mentioned:

Ichiro SuzukiJamie Moyer, Jim ThomeJuan GonzalezEllis Burks, CC Sabathia, Lou PiniellaAaron SeleCharlie ManuelDave Burba, Mike Cameron, Tom Lampkin, Mike Bacsik, Russell BranyanJohn HalamaJolbert CabreraMarty Cordova, Norm Charlton. Omar Vizquel, Ed TaubenseeJeff NelsonEinar DiazKazuhiro SasakiKenny LoftonJose Paniagua