Sabathia, Indians push Mariners to brink, 17-2

Seattle now down 2-1 in AL Division Series

October 14, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

CLEVELAND - Playing the Seattle Mariners during their historic 116-win season has been compared to many things, all excruciating. Yesterday before 45,069 at roiling Jacobs Field, the Cleveland Indians handed the ball to a 21-year-old left-handed pitcher, held their breath and watched C. C. Sabathia emerge from the experience comparing it to child's play.

If ever a team has won a more significant game more easily than the Indians' 17-2 beating of the Mariners, neither Sabathia nor anyone else in the Indians' clubhouse was aware of it.

The result is this afternoon's Game 4 for a Mariners team that spent much of the season cruising. The Indians hold a 2-1 edge in the American League Division Series, with Bartolo Colon returning five days after shutting out the Mariners in the series opener.

Improbable as it sounded a week ago, the Mariners are another misstep away from enduring one of the most anti-climatic finishes in the game's modern era.

Given a 19-hit offensive breakout that chased postseason-challenged Mariners starter Aaron Sele after two innings and eventually became a platform for shortstop Omar Vizquel's six RBIs, the Indians exploited a moribund, defensively inept Mariners performance.

Home runs by Juan Gonzalez, Kenny Lofton and Jim Thome complemented Vizquel's four-hit game and made easier Sabathia's six-plus innings. Gonzalez also managed four hits. Thome's sixth-inning home run was his 17th in the postseason, leaving him one short of the record shared by Mickey Mantle and Reggie Jackson.

"The closest thing I can compare it to is when I was a little kid and my mom took me to Toys `R' Us. It was like when you go to Toys `R' Us and get to pick out anything you want. I was like a little kid in a candy store," Sabathia said, his smile growing at the thought.

The Indians have become the game's most profound and longstanding October enigma.

They stunned the defending world champion New York Yankees in 1997 before toppling the AL East champion Orioles, who had crafted the league's best record with 98 wins that season, to reach the World Series.

And they have suffered inexplicable collapses, beginning in 1996 when, as defending American League champions, they lost to the 88-win Orioles in the Division Series. Perhaps most memorably, they dropped the '97 World Series to the wild-card Florida Marlins and squandered a 2-0 lead against the Boston Red Sox in the best-of-five 1999 Division Series, a slip that contributed to manager Mike Hargrove's firing after taking the Indians to the playoffs five consecutive seasons.

"When you get into the postseason, it's a different type of season," Thome said. "Any team, I think, gets into the first round excited and pumped up. We came out excited. ... It's not over. We've been through this before. It's easy to enjoy this game but we've got tomorrow. They've won 116 games and we know they can win two more games."

Sabathia and possibly the league's most dangerous lineup have positioned themselves to complete one of the most dramatic feats in postseason history. For the first time this season, the Mariners are playing as if burdened by the success that left them with the American League record for wins in a season and a tie with the 1906 Chicago Cubs for the major-league standard.

"You want to finish it in your house, your home and before this crowd. You want to avoid that trip," Vizquel said. "After a game like this, it's going to be hard for them to concentrate tomorrow."

Sabathia, unseen by the Mariners this season, debuted on April 8 against the Orioles and ended up leading all rookies with 17 wins and 171 strikeouts. The Mariners hoped to exploit Sabathia's inexperience, a tactic that initially worked during a 34-pitch first inning. Sabathia forced home the game's first run with a one-out, bases-loaded walk to John Olerud. One swing away from having the game detonate around him, Sabathia escaped by inducing consecutive foul outs to first base.

Once able to find the strike zone, Sabathia overmatched an offense that led the league in batting average, runs and walks. He retired 10 consecutive hitters at one point and needed only one outfield putout before leaving in the seventh inning.

"I think what made it easier for him was they had nine runs on the board before the game was one-third old. That settles you down pretty quickly as a pitcher," said Mariners manager Lou Piniella. "If you've got that type of lead, you can go throw the ball and you know it's under control." Sele, now 0-4 in the playoffs after allowing four runs in two innings, was the starter against the Indians on Aug. 5 when the Mariners blew a 14-2 lead after the sixth inning. Last night seemed a cruel flashback.

"This," Piniella said, "was probably the worst game we've played all year."

The Mariners made two throwing errors and two other errant throws in the first two innings. Former Gold Glove second baseman Bret Boone's error led to two unearned runs, a 4-1 Indians lead, Sele's abrupt removal and an offensive avalanche brought down upon reliever Paul Abbott.

Sacrificed to conserve the leftover Mariners bullpen, Abbott surrendered eight earned runs, including three on homers, and nine hits in three innings. Every Cleveland starter except third baseman Travis Fryman had at least one hit.

"We're going to come out and play a good game tomorrow. I've got all the confidence in the world," Piniella said. "If we're good enough, we win. If not, we congratulate Cleveland and go home."

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