The Seattle Mariners won 116 games in 2001 which tied a Major League Baseball record that still stands today. Of those wins, one was not 15 years ago today on August 5 in which they held a 14-2 lead against the Cleveland Indians in the 7th inning.
Of course it’s Russell Branyan, the kid who only hit homers, that starts off the scoring with a home run. Still, the Mariners were up 11 runs with two outs and nobody on in the 7th inning. There was just no way. Even after a little two-out rally, it was a nine-run lead heading into the 8th. It’s truly hard to put into words how improbable this comeback was and that’s why it’s the most improbable in baseball history.
Aaron Sele didn’t have a good start in this game as he went 6 and 2/3 innings allowing five earned runs, but it didn’t really matter. He had been staked a huge lead after three innings when the potent Mariners offense blasted a combination of starter Dave Burba and reliever Mike Bascik (who holds the honorabe distinction of allowing Barry Bonds’ record-breaking 756th career home run) for 12 runs. The 14-5 lead still looked rather comfortable heading into the 8th inning when Mariners reliever John Halama took the mound.
Jim Thome’s second homer of the game followed by a two-run shot by Marty Cordova really made this thing interesting as the Indians had pulled within six runs of the Mariners with nobody out in the 8th. Still unlikely, but not impossible. The main issue still facing the Indians was that the Mariners bullpen was really, really good. Halama was a failed starter with a 5+ ERA that had been relegated to mop-up duty. In this case, he was like the scrub “mini-boss” you face in a video game before you get to the actual real bosses. The back-end of the Mariners pen featured veteran side-armer Jeff Nelson who featured an ERA below 2.00 entering the game, one of the top set-up men in the game in Arthur Rhodes who went 8-0 with a 1.75 ERA in 2001, and closer Kazahiro Sasaki who finished second behind Mariano Rivera with 45 saves in 2001. Throw in the fact that this Mariners team just didn’t lose very much (only 46 times all season) and victory was nearly an impossibility.
Manager Lou Piniella ends up pulling Halama with one out, two on in the eight and the expectation is that Norm Charlton, a solid veteran lefty, would be able to quell the Indians’ comeback. He limited the damage to only an Omar Vizquel bloop single and got out of the inning with a 14-9 lead with the help of an ill-advised attempt by Kenny Lofton to score on a wild pitch.
Charlton started the ninth, but couldn’t seal the deal as Piniella decided to go to the aforementioned Jeff Nelson up five runs with two outs and two men on. This is when the real magic happened. A walk followed by an Einar Diaz single brought the tying run to the plate and Lou Piniella back out to the mound to bring in closer Kaz Sasaki. Lofton singled and then Vizquel came through with the bases loaded on a triple down the right field line to tie it.
At this point, you knew the Indians weren’t losing this one. Would have bet my life on it. It wasn’t until the 11th inning though as Lofton and Vizquel were on base for what seemed like the 15th time. Jolbert Cabrera, the older brother of the more well-known shortstop Orlando Cabrera, stepped in against Jose Paniagua and laced a broken bat single into left field to win it for the Indians.
It literally felt like the Indians had won the World Series as Eddie Taubenesse lifted Lofton up on his shoulder following his slide home. These are comebacks you simply don’t see against any team, let alone against one of the greatest regular season teams in MLB history. While only a regular season game, it proved to be important. The Indians sat a half game behind the Minnesota Twins for the AL Central lead and this propelled them to take the AL Central by five games.
Meanwhile, the Mariners would tie the 1906 Chicago Cubs for most wins in a season with 116. They would be standing alone had they not allowed the Indians to make the most improbable comeback in baseball history.