SEATTLE - The Cleveland Indians didn't challenge the all-time record for regular-season victories this year. It was all they could do to outdistance the small-market Minnesota Twins in the American League Central.
So, how could they possibly expect to upset a team that won 116 games, and was all but invincible from the opening day of the regular season until the opening round of the playoffs.
Here's how: It's a best-of-five series that will shift decisively with the outcome of Game 3 today at Jacobs Field.
The Mariners may have reclaimed the momentum with their 5-1 victory in Game 2 on Thursday, but the Indians have an X-factor. Rookie pitcher C.C. Sabathia, who is set to face veteran right-hander Aaron Sele, won 17 games and is a total stranger to Seattle.
Cleveland manager Charlie Manuel thinks that could make a big difference in what is almost certain to be the pivotal game of the series. "I think it can," Manuel said. "They have not seen him. I think the type of pitcher that C.C. is, with his fastball, I think his command is going to be the biggest thing. If he's getting his fastball over the plate and he can change speeds, I think that [since] they have not seen him, he might be a little different to them."
It's not like the Mariners have knocked the cover off the ball in the first two games. They were overpowered in Game 1 by hard-throwing Indians right-hander Bartolo Colon. They broke out with a pair of two-run home runs against veteran left-hander Chuck Finley in Game 2, but scored only one more run the rest of the way.
Sabathia will be making his first career postseason appearance, so there is no way of knowing how he'll react to playoff pressure, but he - and the Indians - have the advantage of entering the home portion of the series unburdened by the inflated expectations that make the next few days so important to the Mariners.
Manuel thinks the kid will hold up just fine, based on a regular-season performance that would have made him a lock for American League Rookie of the Year if Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki had chosen to stay another year in Japan.
"His composure, it's been a little bit better than I thought it was going to be," said Manuel, "but I started noticing it in spring training and that's one reason why I fought to keep him on the team.
"I think that a big part of his success is the fact that he doesn't let things bother him on the mound. He'll give up a home run and bounce right back and make some good pitches."
Of course, the Mariners proved on Thursday that the weight of their postseason expectations was not so heavy that they forgot what they did during the regular season, and they've got a pretty good No. 3 starter waiting to take the mound for a team that was more dominant on the road (59-22) than it was at home (57-24).
Sele, who was close to a contract with the Orioles two years ago before medical questions prompted the team to back away, was 15-5 during the regular season and ranked among the league leaders with a 3.60 ERA.
He has been a consistent winner in each of his first two seasons with the Mariners and allowed three runs or fewer in seven of his past eight starts. He'll be looking for his first victory in five career playoff starts, but he pitched very well in his Division Series start against the Chicago White Sox last year and has not allowed more than four runs in any postseason appearance.
That experience could be a big factor in a hostile stadium.
"I think it helps," Sele said. "For situations like this, the fans, the excitement in the ballpark, all of the extra activities, I think that's important. I think once the first pitch is thrown, then it's game time. I think 162 games gives you plenty of experience for your postseason."
No doubt, the 31-year-old right-hander would like to experience a little more run support than he has gotten in his previous playoff starts, but won't be surprised if Game 3 is a tense, low-scoring affair.
"It's kind of what you expect in the postseason," Sele said. "The best teams make it, so you've got great lineups and you've got probably the best pitching staffs throughout the league. It's postseason baseball. You're here, you play hard and you have fun ... and see what happens at the end of the game."