When the New York Yankees and Seattle Mariners got together on October 17 to begin the 2001 American League Championship Series it was more than just a rematch of the previous year’s ALCS—the first time such had occurred since 1976-78—it was also a showdown of two teams that had broken the 100-win mark. The Yankees, with three consecutive World Series title already in hand, won 102 and blew open the AL East. The Mariners were even better, racking up a regular season record 116 wins and blowing open the AL West.
The two teams seemed destined for this final showdown, but the opening round of the playoffs nearly tripped them both up. New York lost the first two games of its best-of-five series with Oakland, before rallying to win three straight. Seattle went to the brink of elimination, falling behind Cleveland 2-1 after three games, before restoring order and winning the final two. The ALCS showdown was set.
Seattle had bolstered their lineup prior to the season with two key acquisitions. They signed second baseman Bret Boone in free agency, and he responded with 37 home runs, 141 RBIs, a .331 batting average and a third-place finish in the MVP voting. The winner of the MVP? It was Seattle’s other new pickup, outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, brought over from Japan. Ichiro hit .350 and got a stellar major league career in the United States underway. They joined a lineup that already had productive designated hitter Edgar Martinez, first baseman John Olerud, who posted a .401 on-base percentage and centerfielder Mike Cameron who hit 25 home runs.
New York’s offseason investment was in pitching, as they added Baltimore ace Mike Mussina and they “only” ranked fifth in the American League in runs scored, with the offense generally considered a weak point, at least by comparison to their previous championship teams. They still had Derek Jeter and his .377 on-base percentage to set the table, and Bernie Williams, with his .522 slugging percentage to clean the table up. Not to mention Tino Martinez, who hit 34 home runs and other stalwarts of the dynasty like third baseman Scott Brosius and rightfielder Paul O’Neill.
Pitching was a big strength for both teams. Seattle trotted out a young Freddy Garcia, who won 18 games at age 24, and Jamie Moyer, positively spry at age 38, who won 20. Aaron Sele posted 15 wins. All three starters had ERAs of 3.60 or lower, a real achievement in the era of steroid-driven offensive numbers.
On New York’s side, the rotation was built around Mike Mussina, Andy Pettite and Roger Clemens. The trio combined to win 52 games, all had ERA in the high 3s and Clemens won the Cy Young Award.
When you went to the bullpen, Seattle turned to Kazuhiro Sasaki, who saved 45 games. And New York had the already-inestimable Mariano Rivera, who racked up 50 saves. Each team had a deep relief corps in front. New York’s bullpen was a big reason they were wearing all those Series rings. Seattle strengthened theirs by going to the source, and nabbing Jeff Nelson away from the Bronx in the offseason.
There was every reason to expect an epic battle, and it had the further dramatic background of the 9/11 attacks that had taken place on New York City little more than a month earlier. The Yankees, for one year, weren’t the team so many of us loved to hate. They were a team that was now carrying the banner for a city that needed some hope and this backdrop followed them throughout their postseason run.
New York would wait for the series to come its way. Seattle hosted the opening two games on a Wednesday and Thursday night, and they were a city looking for its pro sports championship since the Sonics (now the Oklahoma City Thunder) won the NBA crown in 1979, and the first-ever appearance in a World Series.
It was Pettite-Sele in Game 1 and the Yankees struck first in the second inning. Leftfielder Chuck Knoblauch, who aided Jeter in the setup duties at the top of the order, knocked in a run, though a Jeter pop-out left runners on second and third. The Yankees added two more in the fourth when Jorge Posada doubled and O’Neill homered. Seattle made its move in the fifth, when a Mike Cameron double put men on second and third with no outs.
A groundball out by John Olerud picked up one run and advanced Cameron to third. But Pettite struck out Jay Buhner and Martinez in succession to preserve a 3-1 lead. Martinez missed his chance at redemption in the ninth, when he came to the plate as the tying run in a 4-2 game. He bounced out to Rivera.
Garcia would take the ball for Game 2, while Mussina, in his first year as a Yankee, would try and give his team command of the series. Edgar Martinez’ night started off as rough as the previous one had ended—he came up in the first inning with two on and one out and grounded into a double play. New York got its own opportunity an inning later when Scott Brosius doubled in a run with two outs and Knoblauch hit a two-run single. Seattle closed to within 3-2 in the fourth, but the scoring chances mostly ended for both teams after that and Rivera recorded a five-out save.
Seattle manager Lou Pinella had a unique relationship with the Yankees. He’d been a key player on their championship teams of 1977-78, a manager for the team and had what was generally seen as a good relationship with George Steinbrenner. Perhaps the strain led Pinella to pop off in the postgame press conference and issue a guarantee—that his team had not played its last home game. That would necessitate winning two of the three middle games in Yankee Stadium.
The Mariners went to work on making good on their manager’s guarantee. Trailing 2-0 in the fifth inning of Game 3, Boone tied it with a two-out, two-run single. Then Olerud led off the sixth with a home run, leading the roof to fall in on the Yankee pitching staff. Seattle scored seven times in the sixth and won the game 14-3.
Game 4 had underappreciated Paul Abbot pitching for Seattle against the more renowned Roger Clemens. Both starters worked five innings, in and out of minor trouble throughout, but never giving up a run. The bullpens took over and the scoreless game went to the eighth. Boone homered and put Seattle six outs from backing up their manager’s guarantee. But with one out, Bernie Williams hit a home run of his own in the bottom of the inning. In the ninth, Rivera set down Seattle in order and kept the 1-1 tie. Sasaki couldn’t do the same for Seattle—after a one-out single from Brosius, Alfonso Soriano hit a walkoff home run into right-center and the Yanks were on the game of a pennant.
It was a Pettite-Sele rematch for Game 5, but in reality this was no match. In the bottom of the third, New York got a key two-out double from David Justice and an early knockout blow when Williams hit a two-run shot, his third home run of the series. New York’s lead grew to 9-0 after six, and they won their fourth straight pennant in a 12-3 rout.
Pettite was named series MVP for his two wins. Williams had the three home runs, all key ones in the later games, but he only had one other hit for the entire series. Knoblauch had helped set the table, with five this in the first two games, but tailed off back home. Pettite had pitched extremely well in setting the tone in Game 1 and finishing it off in Game 5.
New York would not win a fourth straight World Series. They lost a historic battle to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Seattle hasn’t been back to the postseason since, much less found that elusive World Series trip. Their city still looks for another championship of any kind, with the Seahawks losing the 2005 Super Bowl, and the Sonics eventually leaving town.
The 2001 American League Championship Series might not have delivered the dramatic finish that seemed so possible when it began. Because of that its lost its place in sports history. We shouldn’t forget that three of Seattle’s losses were heartbreakers, they were oh-so-close to tying the series up and if nothing else, a battle between 100-win teams is always one worthy of being remembered.