In end, a losing year for Seattle

Mariners see 116 wins as salve, but Yanks' ALCS rout still burns

October 24, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - The Seattle Mariners did it all during the course of their magical, 116-win regular season. They hit better than anybody else and pitched well and proved that good team chemistry can trump star power on an everyday basis.

It was a nice lesson, learned in the glaring absence of $252 million shortstop Alex Rodriguez and earlier departees Ken Griffey and Randy Johnson. It would have made for a great World Series story line, except that the New York Yankees have the fairy-tale market cornered this year.

The Mariners will go down in history the same way as the 1906 Chicago Cubs did after setting the regular-season victory record that the Mariners tied this year. No championship means no lasting legacy, but manager Lou Piniella refused to characterize the 2001 season as a great near-miss.

"I'm proud of our guys," Piniella said soon after the Mariners were trounced, 12-3, in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series on Monday night. "I talked to the team. I told them that we've had just a fantastic season - 116 wins is something that's only been done once ever in the history of baseball. I congratulated them on a great season, and I thanked them for the way they played for me and for this organization."

No one can deny what the Mariners accomplished during the regular season, but they ran into a team that has held a monopoly on postseason success for the past four years.

The Yankees and their pricey pitching staff were too much for the Mariners and their great regular-season offensive formula. Record-setting leadoff man Ichiro Suzuki suddenly looked strangely average. American League RBI leader Bret Boone was held in check until the Yankees held an advantage - 2-0 coming home - that no team had ever overcome in a best-of-seven ALCS.

"We knew coming in here we had to hit their starting pitching," Piniella said. "And I said for us to beat them that we had to swing the bats against their top four. You know, for the most part, they held us in check pretty good. Once you allow their starting pitchers to pitch well, you're going to see [Mariano] Rivera, you are going to see [Ramiro] Mendoza, you are going to see [Mike] Stanton. It becomes a tough chore, especially with Rivera."

The Mariners brought a pretty good pitching staff into the postseason, too, but veteran left-hander Jamie Moyer could not get them to the World Series all by himself.

Moyer was 3-0 in this postseason. The rest of the Mariners' pitching staff was a combined 1-6. But still, if setup man Arthur Rhodes and closer Kazuhiro Sasaki had done their jobs on Sunday night instead of giving up a pair of late-inning home runs that further enhanced the Yankees' postseason mystique, the ALCS might be resuming tonight in Seattle with the outcome very much in doubt.

Their defeat had to be even more discouraging because the Mariners had not endured a significant slump during the regular season. They didn't face any real adversity until the Cleveland Indians pushed them to the brink of elimination in the Division Series.

"It's the caliber of teams you're playing," Piniella said. "You are playing the best teams in all of baseball at the end, and the further you go, the better the teams get.

"Sooner or later, some teams are eliminated. We were the one, unfortunately, that was eliminated, but you are playing good baseball teams. It becomes harder. It's a tougher task as you move down the process. You know, the amazing thing about baseball is that no matter how many games you win, unless you win the World Series, you're going to feel disappointment."

Maybe it would have been easier to swallow if the offensive lineup had not been so dominated. The Mariners hit a combined .211 against the Yankees, and that average would have been considerably lower if not for their 14-run outburst in Game 3. They averaged just two runs in the other four games.

In the end, it came down to the difference between the starting rotations. The Mariners were caught at crunch time with their No. 3 and No. 4 starters, neither of whom had ever won a postseason game. Paul Abbott pitched five no-hit innings in Sunday's frustrating loss, but Aaron Sele ran his postseason career record to 0-6 with a mediocre performance that allowed the Yankees to suck all the suspense out of Game 5.

There wasn't much left to do at that point but try to protect the memory of their great regular season.

"I don't think this lessens what we did at all," veteran pitcher Norm Charlton said after Game 5. "The Yankees were better than us in a seven-game series, but they weren't better than us during the season. Nobody was better than us. We can take pride in doing something nobody in the American League had ever done [the 116 wins]. We can take pride in our road record, take pride in losing only three in a row once. We just got outplayed in this series, and you have to tip your cap."

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