The 2001 Mariners gave up one of the biggest comebacks in MLB history
I am a Mariners fan, which has led to many bad sports nights. The worst began with Dave Burba slopping what I can only assume was his take on a cut fastball a few inches off the plate away. Ichiro was at bat, Mark McLemore on deck, the twilight was falling on a beautiful Ohio evening, and the Cleveland Indians were hosting the 80-31 Seattle Mariners.
I’d never seen the Mariners on television before. I moved to Seattle when I was 10 and was a boring enough child to fall in love with baseball after my first visit to the Kingdome. Thanks to the vagaries of cable, however, I had to follow my team via radio and once-yearly excursions to the ballpark. That’s not necessarily a bad thing when you have Dave Neihaus guiding you through your favorite team’s golden age*, but it did leave me starved for non-aural baseball.
*As it turns out, 1995-2003 was also the Mariners’ only non-fecal age.
So starved, in fact, every time Seattle made it to a national broadcast, I would try to watch. And every time, for literally years, I’d get notified that, so sorry, your game has been blacked out. Until, suddenly, on Aug. 5, 2001, it worked. I was baffled by this turn of events, of course, but decided to take it as a note of benevolence from a higher power, and settled in to watch.
Pitch number two was in more or less the same place as Burba’s first offering. Three was an 84-mph fastball down the middle that Ichiro apparently thought would be too embarrassing to hit, a decision which cost him when he was called out on strikes a few pitches later. So far so bad, a younger, more innocent me must have thought.
The 2001 Indians were a good team and could pitch. A little bit. Bartolo Colon was in his intimidating pomp, and the arrival of rookie left-hander C.C. Sabathia helped give their rotation a one-two punch which was entirely irrelevant when Burba (or anyone else — Cleveland essentially ran a AAA rotation beyond the big two) was on the mound. At his best, Burba was slightly better than pure filler, but at 34 he was no longer at his best, and he was going up against a Mariners team that was set to absolutely torch him. Now he was up against Mark McLemore, who struck out too. Then Edgar Martinez chopped out to third.
If you follow baseball, you’re probably aware of this game, at least tangentially. And therefore you’re aware that this was something more disastrous than what was threatened in the top of the first: a mediocre pitcher chewing his way through a very good lineup. That’s a bad day, but not a traumatic one. Four batters into the game, when Kenny Lofton cracked a ground ball single back through the box, and hard, I feared a bad day. How disappointing it would be to have my first televised Mariners experience be a frustrating loss!
Aaron Sele wriggled his way out of the bottom of the first, which gives me a good opportunity to drop in this still from a between-innings commercial:
I think Pontiac would have been proud of how they’ve shaped modern society.
The Mariners scored four times in the top of the second. Two ill-considered dives produced a pair of hustle doubles, sandwiched around a Mike Cameron blast which bounced off the wall but would have gone about 20 rows deep if he’d been hitting the 2019 baseball. Ichiro then plated a pair with a delicate lob to left. Seattle was rolling, and I was happy.
I was still happier after the third. That inning went something like this:
Hit By Pitch
It was worth eight runs and took the score to 12-0. No baseball team in 75 years had come back from a 12-run deficit. The Indians, who’d already been beaten twice at home by Seattle that weekend and were starting to look in trouble in the AL Central race, were staring at a blowout. No baseball team in 75 years had come back from a 12-run deficit.
Then one did. This game is in the record books as the greatest comeback of all time, the one in which Cleveland clawed their way back from a ludicrous deficit to win the game in extras. Blowing a 12-run lead over any length of time is difficult enough, but the sheer scope of the Mariners’ collapse is extraordinary. The teams each scored two runs in the middle innings, leaving the score at 14-2 during the seventh-inning stretch. The Indians had to compress history (and, for me, misery) into three innings.
They did so without the heart of their fearsome batting order. By the time the comeback began, both lineups had seen a slew of changes. Ichiro, Martinez, and Olerud were on the bench, as were Alomar, Juan Gonzalez, and Ellis Burks. The only really dangerous bats left available to either team were Jim Thome and Bret Boone, and the latter had been given the day off anyway. Despite the two clubs sending seven hitters to the 2001 MLB All-Star game, only Mike Cameron played the full 11 innings of what was to prove one of the most memorable games of the decade.
Anyway. By the middle of the seventh, I was in a pretty good mood. I was getting to watch (not listen!) to one of the greatest teams of all time kick the ever-loving shit out of some pretty capable opposition, and although it was a little annoying that most of the big bats were out of the game, all the Mariners needed to do to ensure my evening finished happily was not blow a 12-run lead.
AN ASIDE: Whatever happened to this dude? Did we lose him during our difficult transition to being a civilization of Mango Freaks?
Through six innings, Sele had given up six hits, a walk, and two runs. Russell Branyan, on for Burks, greeted him with a screaming line drive into the right centre field seats. 14-3. The comeback was on. Only, it didn’t really look it. Two batters later and the Indians needed 11 runs to tie the game, and had seven outs to do it. Solo home runs weren’t going to do it.
If we had to pick a turning point, the plate appearance which made all that followed possible, it might be Lofton’s walk. With two outs, Einar Diaz smacked a two-hopper up the middle and well out of Carlos Guillen’s reach, but Sele was still cruising and quickly got Lofton 0-2 thanks to a generous called strike and a foul ball. One more strike would have sent the Indians into the eighth inning in an (even more) impossible hole. Sele threw exactly zero more strikes.
Lofton took four straight fastballs away. None of them were close. Omar Vizquel followed that up with a four-pitch walk, and suddenly Sele, who averaged just 2.1 walks per nine innings for the entire 2001 season, had walked the bases loaded. The clouds were gathering. Lou Piniella seeded them further by going to blowout specialist John Halama.
Halama, part of the return for Randy Johnson in 1998, was a terrible pitcher, AAA no-hitter aside. He somehow logged 110 innings for the 2001 Mariners, which is remarkable considering he didn’t strike anyone out and got absolutely blitzed by opposing hitters. The ‘01 Mariners had one of the strongest bullpens ever assembled, headlined by Kazuhiro Sasaki, Arthur Rhodes, and Jeff Nelson. Even the best bullpens, however, have their fair share of dreck. With an 11-run cushion and someone named Jolbert Cabrera at the plate, dreck should have been fine.
It was not fine. Cabrera took a big swing on a changeup away, and yanked the ball into left. That fooled Martin, who froze, took a step backwards and then charged in, allowing the ball to drop a step or two in front of him. Two runs would score, and the seventh inning ultimately ended, 14-5.
The Mariners’ bats seem to have considered their job done. After the fifth, they went a combined 3-18, with three singles. Having scored 14 runs in that early blitz, they quite reasonably went into cruise control. They’d never come back out.
Meanwhile, the Indians were treating Halama like a piñata. Thome, whose two-run home run in the fourth got Cleveland on the board, flipped a 2-1 “fastball” into the left field corner for another homer. 14-6. Marty Cordova joined him in the home run parade after a Branyan hit-by-pitch — 14-8. Suddenly the game was within reach, and after a pair of singles Halama was done. Norm Charlton was called in from the pen.
Charlton wasn’t one of the big three Mariners relievers, but he wasn’t bad either, and Piniella would have been expecting him to hold down a six-run lead even in a tricky spot. He probably should have, too. Vizquel was jammed on a 95-mph fastball away, but he somehow kept it fair and the ball looped down the left field line for a double and a 14-9 score. The Mariners then got a break in this breakless of games — Lofton misread a ball which bounced off Tom Lampkin’s right leg and was thrown out trying to score, which allowed Charlton to escape to the ninth with a five-run lead.
I didn’t yet know to be nervous. Eighteen years ago, the Seattle Mariners were not the Seattle Mariners™. They had not yet become the unbridled force for misery which has shaped the way I look at sports. Their playoff drought was zero years. They had reached the ALCS in 2000, they would again in 2001. They were phenomenal, and I expected them to win more or less whenever they played, whatever the situation. And when they lost … well, that happened. I suppose. Infrequently.
Ed Taubensee led off the bottom of the ninth with a single. With Thome and Branyan next up, the situation looked perilous, but Charlton made quick work of them. Two outs, down five, and a runner on first? That should have been game over. Then the wheels really came off.
I hadn’t watched this inning since I saw the calamity unfold live, but it’s seared into my memory regardless. Cordova absolutely crushed a pitch off the left-field wall to knock Charlton out of the game. Nelson was summoned. He got Wil Cordero to 3-2, then struck him out looking on a wicked slider:
Well, he should have struck him out with that slider. Instead was called ball four. Missed calls have been more egregious, of course, but this one had a profound effect on my young psyche, for six pitches later Nelson himself was knocked out of the game by a line drive into left off Diaz’s bat — 14-11. Suddenly it was a save situation, and it was clear to teenage me that something had gone terribly wrong.
I was ‘watching’ with my hands over my eyes as Lofton scooched a single past David Bell to bring up the go-ahead run in Vizquel. Not a soul in Jacobs Field was sitting down. This was it. Sasaki started Vizquel off with a splitter that he swung over for strike one. A second splitter followed, well out of the zone. The battle would end up lasting some time.
Baseball is a sport devoted to tension. Stress is the soul of the game and has been since the foul-ball rules were finalized. In a sport with a clock, key moments are just that: moments. They come, they go, they are finished with and done in a flash. Baseball stretches its moments and its fans to a breaking point. I am reliably informed that during Vizquel’s at-bat I was having what looked like a small seizure. All I really remember is the creeping horror, every pitch promising redemption or catastrophe but only serving to prolong the moment and ratchet up the stress.
Sasaki’s fifth pitch to Vizquel was a 91-mph fastball down the middle and at the knees, called a ball for reasons I suspect are related to the will of some malevolent deity. Pitch six was just about fouled off, an emergency swing sending a splitter trickling off behind home plate. Pitch seven was popped into the stands on the third base side. And then pitch eight was guided by the despotic hand of fate onto the label of Vizquel’s bat.
The subsequent weak grounder was perfectly placed, right down the first base line. Ed Sprague was a) playing in and b) not John Olerud, so his desperate dive ended in failure. Lofton was 34, and not as fast as he once was, but the ball was so well-placed — and the Mariners’ defense so thoroughly depleted — that he scored from first with 40 feet to spare. 14-14. Tie game.
For some reason I watched to the bitter end, even though extra innings were essentially and entirely denouement. Cleveland had already won the game by drawing level, and the Mariners had already lost it by blowing the biggest lead in MLB history. Cabrera’s walk-off single in the bottom of the 11th marked only the final blow in a disaster that had already unfolded.
Eighteen years later, this still haunts me. Not like it did then, when it was merely a humiliation, a nationally televised scandal of a game in what was otherwise an enormously successful season. But now, with the Mariners mired in year after year of pain, when the organization considers mediocrity aspirational, it’s hard not to see this as a harbinger of the misery to come, an early visitation of the Mariners in their true colors.
Sometimes I wonder if the current incarnation of the team, the one slowly draining the hope out of my fandom since 2004, is somehow inhabited by the ghost of Aug. 5. It’s ridiculous, of course — a single game, record books or not, has no bearing whatsoever on the standings 18 years later.
But. Still. What if?
Correction: This article originally stated that no team in history had ever come back from a 12-run deficit. In fact, it had happened twice prior to 2001, most recently in 1925.
This article originally ran before Secret Base launched, but it’s a very us story, and we like to think it’s worth reading. So here it is again!