On Aug. 12, 2008, the Boston Red Sox managed to blow a 10-run lead, then rally back to win. On Aug. 5, 2001, the Seattle Mariners, who’d win 116 games that season, took a 14-2 lead into the bottom of the seventh. Surely a 12-run lead would be safe, right?
Like a lot of fans, I enjoy a good comeback. Even in a game one doesn’t care about, sometimes even in a sport one doesn’t care about, watching a team (or individual player) attempting to rally from a seemingly insurmountable hole is exciting to watch. Unless, of course, it is one’s own team trying to hold off the furious rally.
Perhaps more than any team sport, baseball is conducive to the improbable rally. While it is arguably more dramatic to watch a basketball or football team fight the clock to rally, the clock is often the greatest enemy of a team coming back.
Vince Lombardi famously said that the Packers never lost a game, they just ran out of time. In baseball, no such excuse would fly, no matter how pithy. A team has to earn all 27 outs to produce a victory. Unfortunately for the 2001 Seattle Mariners, on an August night in Cleveland, they learned this the hard way.
You probably remember the 2001 Mariners. They set the American League record for wins in a regular season with a 116, tied the major league record for victories, and had eight All-Stars and the league’s MVP and Rookie of the Year. Then they went 4-6 in the playoffs and were eliminated in the ALCS after scoring 14 runs in Game Three and not more than three in any other game.
While such misery was yet to come for Seattle, the Mariners would have a taste of it this night. In the early going, the game was all Mariners. Already ahead 4-0, they began the third inning with the following sequence: single, single, single, (pitching change), double, single, single, hit by pitch, sac fly, walk, reached on error, single. That’s 11 men coming to the plate. By the end of the inning, Seattle had a 12-0 lead.
In the bottom of the fourth, with Seattle pitcher Aaron Sele probably dealing nothing but fastballs, Jim Thome drove a two-run homer to pull the Indians within 10. In the top of the fifth, the Mariners apparently put the game away by gaining back the runs, giving them a 14-2 lead.
That score would remain unchanged entering the seventh inning. However, a number of other changes had been made. With an obvious blowout on his hands, Lou Pinella removed Ichiro Suzuki, John Olerud and Edgar Martinez. Tribe skipper Charlie Manuel took out Roberto Alomar, Travis Fryman, Juan Gonzalez and Ellis Burks.
One of those who entered the game as a sub was Russell Branyan. Leading off the seventh he homered, cutting slightly into the M’s enormous lead. However, the Indians then made two quick outs.
If one consults the game logs on BaseballReference, at this point the Indians’ Win Expectancy for the game is listed at zero. FanGraphs, which produces a less rounded version of the same number, lists it as 0.1 percent. That’s as low as FanGraphs can get to zero. Even without such fancy numbers, anyone in the ballpark would have been hard-pressed to put the Indians chances above one percent, let alone 10.
After a single and two walks, Pinella lifted Sele, who left the game figuring he was in line for his 13th win of the season.
Still, he probably was unhappy to see reliever John Halama allow a single just three pitches into his appearance, scoring two runs, both charged to Sele. Cleveland’s rally was snuffed out when Eddie Taubensee flied out. The Indians were now within nine runs of the Mariners but had just six outs to work with and were facing a bullpen that included Jeff Nelson (2.76 ERA that year), Arthur Rhodes (1.72) and Kaz Sasaki (45 saves, the 2000 Rookie of the Year).
Jim Thome led off the bottom of the eighth with a home run—his second of the game—which perhaps led to Branyan being hit by a pitch as the next batter. That soon backfired on Halama, who then served up another home run, this time to Marty Cordova. Despite having scored three runs without making an out, the Indians’ chance of winning the game, according to Win Expectancy, still stood under two percent.
Halama retired Wil Cordero on a ground out to short, but then gave up back-to-back singles and was yanked from the game. Like Sele, Halama was unaided by the man who replaced him. Norm Charlton came in and promptly allowed an Omar Vizquel double, bringing in both runs and making the score 14-9. But the Indians could not score again and would enter the ninth down five runs and with the “Big Three” of the Seattle bullpen looming.
Charlton stayed in to pitch the ninth, and mixed hits with outs. Having seen enough, Pinella went to his bullpen and pulled Charlton after he allowed a double that put runners on second and third with two out. Once again, a Mariners reliever could not pick up his teammate: Nelson entered the game and walked Cordero, followed by a two-run single by Einar Diaz.
With things now far tighter than Pinella could have imagined they would become, he summoned Sasaki from the pen. He gave up a single to Kenny Lofton, loading the bases. Despite all this, the Mariners were still one out away from a deceptively difficult 14-11 victory. It was not to be.
Having fallen behind 1-2, Vizquel took two balls and then fouled off a pair of pitches. Down to his team’s last strike, and on the eighth pitch, Vizquel lined a triple into the right field corner. The bases emptied and as the die-hards who had remained went crazy, the Indians had tied the game at 14.
The Indians got the winning run to second base with one out in the 10th, but failed to score. In the 11th, the Tribe finally completed their amazing comeback. After a pop-out, the Indians strung together three singles, the last scoring the game- winning run.
Such incredible comebacks are rare—and, as the Rangers proved this week—sometimes all for naught. Seattle would get its revenge, in some measure, in the ALDS that year, defeating the Indians. (Although Seattle went down 2-1 in that series, and lost a game 17-2.) For a year in which the Mariners had a season to remember, Aug. 5 clearly belonged to the Indians, their fans and the shocking comeback.