It definitely ain’t over ‘til it’s over. The 116-win 2001 Seattle Mariners were one of the greatest teams, in any sport, to not win a championship. Led by Lou Piniella, the team was built for success: they boasted great pitching, an impeccable knack for getting on base (their .360 OBP was the highest in the majors), a historically good defense, and absolutely dominated the American League. Yet on Aug. 5, 2001—14 years ago today—they lost a game that should have been impossible to lose.
The backbone of the Mariners was the bullpen; after having struggled for years with relief pitching, Piniella and GM Pat Gillick put together a talented reliever corps led by Kazuhiro Sasaki (45 saves). Arthur Rhodes (1.72 ERA), former Yankee Jeff Nelson (2.72 ERA), and Norm Charlton (3.02 ERA); many of them had career years. The script was simple, and was usually followed: the offense would grab a lead, and the bullpen would hold it.
The 2001 Cleveland Indians, in contrast, were merely “very good.” They won 25 fewer games than the Mariners, and as a testament to Seattle’s absurd record, that was still enough to take the AL Central by six games. Jim Thome, Juan Gonzalez, and Roberto Alomar were bruisers in the lineup, while Bartolo Colon and rookie CC Sabathia led the rotation.
The two teams got together in Cleveland for a four-game wraparound series in early August. The Indians were sitting a half-game behind the Minnesota Twins for the division lead; the Mariners had already run away with the AL West. Seattle won the first two games; the first on the strength of a combined three-hitter by Jamie Moyer and the bullpen, the second with a 14-hit, eight-run outburst on the back of home runs by Bret Boone and Dan Wilson. The third was a nationally televised Sunday night game on ESPN, on the cusp of that late part of summer when football season is gearing up and baseball’s grasp on the undivided attention of America is starting to loosen.
Dave Burba started for the Indians; Aaron Sele took the hill for the Mariners. Burba had been terrible to that point in the season, with an ERA of 6.21, but struck out Ichiro to start the game and got through the first inning without incident. “A great first inning for Burba,” play-by-play announcer Jon Miller exclaimed, before adding, “On a night where the Indians need him to be great.”
The Mariners’ 2001 dominance was as total as it was unlikely. After boasting, at one point, the best shortstop (Alex Rodriguez), arguably the best starting pitcher (Randy Johnson), and the best outfielder in the game (Ken Griffey Jr.), the team lost all of them via trades and free agency, with Rodriguez being the last to leave Seattle for the Rangers and $250 million the previous winter.
The Mariners went for an immediate reload instead of a lengthy rebuild. Young talent like center fielder Mike Cameron, ace righthander Freddy Garcia, and shortstop Carlos Guillen were all acquired in the Griffey and Johnson trades. In addition, the Mariners used the money they might have paid Rodriguez to sign Ichiro Suzuki from Japan, setup man Jeff Nelson from the Yankees, and second baseman Bret Boone, who topped the league in RBIs (141) in the best season of his career. Nearly all of their moves paid off. After taking the first two from Cleveland, they were an astounding 80-30.
The second inning was where things started to unravel for Burba and the Indians. Cameron hit a one-out double high off of the left field wall, driving in left fielder Al Martin. Two batters later, Burba walked David Bell, (years before he became the most hated third baseman in Philadelphia since, well, the one before him) who advanced on a Tom Lampkin liner that bounced off Marty Cordova’s glove. Ichiro followed up with a bloop single to left field that scored both Bell and Lampkin, and just like that, the Indians were down 4-0.
To start the next inning, Burba immediately loaded the bases on singles to Martinez, John Olerud, and Martin. Manager Charlie Manuel pulled him.
“That’s the frustrating part for me as a young broadcaster,” said Rick Sutcliffe, who was filling in for Joe Morgan as an analyst in the ESPN booth. “I did all of this work on Dave Burba today…I’ve got all of this great stuff, and he’s…gone!”
“Well…” Miller offered, “let’s hear it!”
Manuel called for a mop-up reliever who had never before pitched in the majors: lefty Mike Bacsik, who became known for two things and two things only: giving up Barry Bonds’ 756th home run, and tweeting “Congrats to all the dirty Mexicans in San Antonio” after a 2010 NBA playoff game.
Cameron welcomed Bacsik to the bigs with a two-run double. Carlos Guillen drove in Martin and Cameron, bringing the score to 8-0. On the TV broadcast, you can see dejected Cleveland fans filing up the stairs. Maybe to abandon a game that was seemingly over in the third inning, maybe to grab a much-needed beer.
Bacsik gave up another single to Bell, and then hit Lampkin in the back. Ichiro, whose hatred of Cleveland knows no bounds, hit another run-scoring single before Bacsik loaded the bases again. Edgar Martinez stepped to the plate, looked directly at Bacsik with a sort of pained expression as if to say, “I’m sorry,” then singled home two more runs.
Bacsik surrendered another RBI to Olerud, making it 12-0. The Cleveland crowd booed loudly. “The fans are unhappy,” said Miller, unable to state anything but the obvious. At this point, the game was worth watching only to find out how many runs the Mariners would score.
The Indians were a laughingstock for much of the second half of the 20th century. The perfect choice for the movie Major League, the Indians hadn’t won a title since the Truman administration (they still haven’t) and Cleveland as a city had long been a popular punchline. The 1990s Indians bucked this trend, with World Series appearances in ‘95 and ’97; if the Yankees hadn’t built a dynasty, the Indians might have taken their place.
By 2001, though, the Indians were starting to age. They struggled all year long with their starting pitching in particular: Colon and Sabathia were solid, but behind them was a group of fragile veterans including Burba, Chuck Finley, and Charles Nagy. Over the course of the season, the Indians used a remarkable 24 different pitchers, with 10 of them making at least four starts. By contrast, the Mariners used just 15 pitchers all season, with six arms accounting for 155 starts.
In the Cleveland bullpen, Bob Wickman was a steady hand in the closer role, and Paul Shuey, Ricardo Rincon, and 23-year old Danys Baez all posted respectable numbers. Just as with the rotation, however, the Indians’ bullpen dealt with injuries, and in June they traded Steve Karsay (who had a 1.25 ERA at the time) to Atlanta for the controversial—and at that point, still effective —John Rocker. In a diplomatic statement after the trade, Braves third baseman Chipper Jones talked about how “unnerving” Rocker was to the clubhouse before quickly adding, “he was a good guy and did his job to the best of his ability.”
What they lacked in pitching, however, the Indians more than made up for with their lineup. The team had six players with at least 20 home runs and four players boasting a .900+ OPS. Jim Thome and Juan Gonzalez (in his only full year with Cleveland) bashed 84 home runs and had 264 RBIs between them. By year’s end, the Indians tallied 212 home runs—43 more than the Mariners. This was a team that was capable of scoring runs in bunches.
Still, this emergence of the Twins and White Sox as legitimate AL Central contenders raised the question of if the Indians’ best days were behind them. One sign of that were rumors that manager Charlie Manuel, who had been with the team since 1988 and its manager since 2000, was on the hot seat. “Back in 1994, ‘95 and ‘96, there was a roar in this park,” said Manuel would say after this game. “You couldn’t hear voices, just a roar. Like when you walk on a beach by the ocean. We get that roar every once in a while now.”
In the bottom of the fourth, Jim Thome hit a two-run homer off of Aaron Sele to end the shutout. Sutcliffe remarked that Sele’s curveball had been off that night, but this was the first time it had hurt him “as far as runs were concerned.” Even after getting on the board, Manuel began taking out his starters—he removed Gonzalez, Alomar, Ellis Burks, and Travis Fryman after only two at-bats each—and left Bacsik in to eat up innings of what was surely a lost game. Center fielder Kenny Lofton would tell the Cleveland Plain Dealer in an interview years later that he “wanted to stay in the game for some reason. [Maybe] I had a girlfriend there.”
Bacsik quickly gave back two runs in the fifth to make it 14-2, and the score stayed the same through six. Omar Vizquel acknowledged in a post-game interview that, looking at the scoreboard, the Indians decided “today wasn’t going to be our day.”
In the seventh inning, strikeout-prone slugger Russell Branyan, who had replaced Burks, hit a solo home run. The Indians then loaded the bases before Piniella pulled a tiring Sele in favor of John Halama, who had come over in the Randy Johnson trade and began 2001 as a starter before being moved to the bullpen in July as his ERA approached 6.00. Halama promptly gave up a two-run single to Jolbert Cabrera—in for Alomar—bringing it to 14-5. Not close, and not even respectable, but at least not a 12-run deficit anymore.
Meanwhile, Bacsik was somehow still in the game. His line from the night is ugly, but without him settling down to throw three scoreless innings to finish out his six innings of relief, the Indians would’nt have had even their minuscule chance to come back. In the bottom half of the eighth, Thome hit his second homer. “For the fans still here,” Miller said, “Jim Thome has given ‘em some entertainment!” Two batters later, Marty Cordova took Halama deep for a two-run blast. The Indians had cut the deficit in half; it was now 14-8.
Omar Vizquel was not a good hitter in 2001. The then-two time All-Star shortstop rarely had big years at the plate, especially when compared with the Big Three shortstops of the time (Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Nomar Garciaparra), but the 34-year old was one of the best defensive shortstops of all time: From 1993 to 2001, he had won nine straight Gold Gloves.
This season, however, was rough even by Vizquel’s standards, hitting for an average (.254) and OPS (.657) well below his eventual career averages, even as he stretched his career on for an incredible 11 more years. His speed took a major hit, as well; just two years after stealing 42 bases while getting caught just nine times, Vizquel finished 2001 with just 13 stolen bases in 22 attempts. In just about every offensive metric, Vizquel was having an off-year — and at 34, it would have been natural to see his numbers as the start of his decline. Vizquel, who had started his career in Seattle, was already well on his way to being a icon in Cleveland. But he wouldn’t have been anyone’s first choice to come up with the game on the line.
It still would have been crazy to believe the Indians could Do This, but the anticipation in the crowd was building, even as less than half of the sellout crowd remained by the time Norm Charlton and his glorious mullet came on to relieve Halama. The camera panned to Omar Vizquel’s tiny, exhausted son Nico as the boy’s father stepped up to the plate with runners on first and second. Vizquel blooped a ball to right to drive in another run and make it a five-run game. “When we got within 14-9,” Lofton recalled later, “I thought, ‘Hey, wait a minute, we’ve got a chance.’
The crowd was at a fever pitch when Charlton bounced a 1-1 slider into the dirt and it ricocheted off Lampkin as Kenny Lofton broke for home. Lampkin quickly got to the ball and flipped it to Charlton for a bang-bang play at the plate. As the crowd paused, waiting for the call and on the edge of delirium, home-plate umpire Jeff Nelson punched his right hand downward. Lofton was out.
Jolbert Cabrera struck out on the next pitch to end the inning, and the wind was completely knocked out of the ballpark. The Indians had scored seven runs in two innings, but still trailed by five runs heading into the ninth. “And it all comes undone,” said Miller, “almost as quickly as it got promising.”
Eddie Taubensee, who had replaced Juan Gonzalez, led off the ninth with a single, but Charlton quickly retired Thome and Branyan. Cordova kept it alive with a double, and the Mariners brought in reliever Jeff Nelson, who at that point of the season boasted a 1.96 ERA. He walked Wil Cordero to load the bases, and catcher Einar Diaz crushed a single to left field, driving in two runs and bringing the score to 14-11 with the tying run at the plate. Piniella went to his closer, Kaz Sasaki. Kenny Lofton singled to load the bases again. That brought up Omar Vizquel.
Vizquel worked Sasaki to a full count, while the fans left at the park did their best to make Jacobs Field sound like it was hosting a World Series game. Miller floated the most improbable of scenarios: “In the history of Major League Baseball, a walk-off grand slam, with two down, and the team trailing by three, has occurred 13 times.” Vizquel had one home run so far that year; it seemed unlikely.
Manager Charlie Manuel was slightly more realistic with his prediction. “I told Omar if he went up there and stayed patient, ‘You can triple into the right-field corner’, Manuel would tell reporters after the game. “I didn’t really buy it,” said Vizquel. “I said, ‘Yeah, sure, Charlie.’”
Vizquel kept fouling off pitches. “It is critical for Lofton [the tying run, on first] to get as big a jump as he can,” Miller noted. “Three-two, two out, the runners go…” Vizquel swung and cracked a line-drive down the first baseline into right field.
John Olerud Ed Sprague dove to try to stop it, but it went just past his outstretched glove, and the race was on.
Diaz and Cordero scored easily, and Lofton, one of baseball’s fastest men but now motoring on aging legs, tore around third and cruised into home, pumping his fists as he crossed the plate. Vizquel’s base-clearing triple had found the right field corner — incredibly, just as Manuel had hoped — and the Indians had erased a 12-run deficit in a span of just three innings. “They are delirious in downtown Cleveland!” Miller screamed, while Sutcliffe remained dumbfounded at the Mariners’ defensive positioning. “Why were they not guarding the first base line? Why was Charles Gipson not playing deeper into right field? It’s hard to understand.”
“I can’t explain it,” Lofton would exclaim after the game. “It was unbelievable. I’ve never been in a game like that in my life. My voice is gone from hollering so much. It was fun. Wow.” It was the first time since the third inning that Cleveland’s win expectancy rose above 10 percent.
Sasaki got Jolbert Cabrera to ground out to end the ninth, and both teams failed to score in the 10th. In the top of the 11th, John Rocker struck out the side.
One of the wildest baseball games ever played ended almost quietly. Jose Paniagua came on for the Mariners, and after getting Diaz to pop out, gave up singles to Lofton and Vizquel. Cabrera, a light-hitting utility man best known for being Orlando Cabrera’s older brother, came up with another chance to end the game.
“One more here to make them a winner,” Miller said, and then Cabrera swung at the very first pitch he saw, shattering his bat and looping the ball into left field softly enough to give Lofton a chance to score. As the center fielder tore around third, McLemore, who had taken over in left to start the inning, threw a perfect strike to Dan Wilson at home. Lofton slid into home, this time under the tag, and it was all over.
The comeback was complete: in 11 innings, the Indians won 15-14 after erasing a 12-run deficit. It was 12:18 in the morning. Eddie Taubensee was waiting at home plate for Lofton, who jumped into his arms. Taubensee threw Lofton over his back — damn near completely over him — like he was a sack of potatoes, and paraded him around as if the Indians had just won a championship. In fact, Bob Wickman would later say that the comeback did feel “like winning the seventh game of the World Series.”
“You never see a game like this,” Bret Boone said afterward. “Never. No matter how good your offense is, you don’t come back from 12 down. But they did it. It was ugly, but they got the job done.”
Cabrera, still on cloud nine after capping the comeback with his game-winning hit, told ESPN that it was the “turning point in the season.”
Manuel simply said, “We got the roar.”
As with most regular-season classics, the game didn’t actually change much in the grand scheme of things, but Cabrera’s prediction would prove true for the Indians. Cleveland would go on to win the AL Central by five games,while the Mariners would post the most wins of the modern era with a 116-46 record. If they had been able to hold on to that 12-run lead, they would have won 117 games, the most of any team ever.
The two teams would meet again in the ALDS, and the Indians took the Mariners the distance before falling short in Game 5. The window had closed for that iteration of the Indians; they wouldn’t make the playoffs again until 2007. The Mariners went on to fall apart in the ALCS against the Yankees, a disappointing end to one of the greatest seasons in baseball history. But for one stupid night in August, the Cleveland Indians made the impossible possible, tying the record for MLB’s biggest comeback and doing it against one of its best rosters, showing why it matters that baseball doesn’t have a clock and proving the truth of Yogi Berra’s most famous aphorism. As Miller signed off, he summed up the sheer ridiculousness of the night. “Well, that may only happen once in a lifetime. And maybe even less than that.”