August 5, 2001 – The Impossible Comeback
The 2001 Seattle Mariners were one of the best ballclubs ever assembled. They had a .360 On Base Percentage for the season, and ended up with an MLB record 116 wins. Dave Burba was matched up with Aaron Sele in a late-summer contest that saw a good Indians team facing the juggernaut from the west. Seattle came into the game with a record of 80-30.
That summer, my high-school girlfriend was hosting an exchange student from Talinn, Estonia. The game was nationally televised, and the wraparound weekend series had been hyped all week. We decided that on Sunday night, we would try to teach the exchange student about baseball.
Burba pitched a 1-2-3 inning to start the game, but quickly began to unravel in the second. Al Martin and Mike Cameron hit consecutive doubles to score Seattle’s first run of the night. After a fly out by Carlos Guillien, Burba issued a walk to David Bell. With runners on first and second, Tom Lampkin doubled down the right field line to score Cameron. Ichiro drove in Bell and Lampkin with a line drive single to left. The Mariners were up 4-0 very quickly.
Burba gave up three consecutive singles to load the bases in the top of the third, and manager Charlie Manuel had seen enough. Reliever Mike Bacsik was called from the bullpen to make his first major league appearance. Bacsik would later become a historical footnote for giving up Barry Bond’s 756th home run while pitching for the Nationals. The M’s sent ten batters to the plate against Bacsik and scored eight runs in the frame. The Indians found themselves in a 12-0 hole against the best pitching staff in baseball.
Down 12 runs, Manuel decided to give some starters a rest–Juan Gonzalez, Robbie Alomar, Ellis Burks, and Travis Fryman all came out of the game after their second at bat. Kenny Lofton later remarked that he, “wanted to stay in the game for some reason. [Maybe] I had a girlfriend there.”
Jim Thome hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the fourth to end the shutout, but Seattle quickly regained their 12-run margin scoring twice in the bottom of the fifth.
In the bottom of the seventh, Russel Branyan cranked a home run to left center off Aaron Sele to lead off the inning. After retiring Marty Cordova and Will Cordero, Sele began to fade. Backup catcher Einar Diaz singled to center, and then Sele walked both Kenny Lofton and Omar Vizquel.
After John Halama was brought in from the Seattle Bullpen, Jolbert Cabrera followed with a two-RBI single that cut the lead to 14-5.
In the bottom of the eighth, Jim Thome led off with a home run off Halama. Russel Branyan took first when Halama hit him with his first pitch. Marty Cordova followed with a homer that made the deficit 14-8. Omar drove in one additional run in the 8th with a double to right field.
Rich Rodriguez pitched a 1-2-3 top of the ninth for the Tribe. He used only seven pitches and got the offense–which was now beginning to feel a little spark–back to the plate.
With two outs and the bases loaded, Einar Diaz singled to left, pushing Eddie Taubensee and Marty Cordova across the plate. The Mariners were forced to bring in their star reliever Kazuhiro Sasaki to attempt to quell the threat. Kenny Lofton took Sasaki’s second pitch through the left side of the infield to re-load the bases.
Vizquel worked Sasaki into a full count. On the eighth pitch of the at bat, Omar hit one sharply over the first base bag. It skipped under backup first baseman Ed Sprague’s glove and out toward the foul pole. Kenny Lofton–showing his characteristic speed, but on aging legs at this point in his career–dug hard to score from first. The bases-clearing triple tied the game at 14. The Tribe had closed the 12 run deficit over the course of just three innings.
I turned to the exchange student. For about the fifth time in the last hour and said, “That is not usually how this works.”
Both teams would fail to score in the 10th. The Indians’ controversial recent acquisition, John Rocker, came on to pitch the top of the 11th. Rocker struck out the side against the bottom third of the M’s order.
After a fly out by Einar Diaz to lead off the bottom half of the frame, Kenny Lofton got aboard with a line drive single to center. Omar singled again to move Lofton into scoring position. This brought Jolbert Cabrera to the plate. Cabrera swung at Jose Paniagua’s first pitch and shattered his bat, sending fragments out to third base and the ball into short left. Lofton raced from second and rounded third. Mark McLemore threw a strike from left field to the plate, but Lofton slid in under the tag to deliver the walkoff victory.
After the game, Lofton was beyond enthusiastic, “I can’t explain it. It was unbelievable. I’ve never been in a game like that in my life. My voice is gone from hollering so much. It was fun. Wow.”
Honorable Mention: August 26, 1995 – Eddie Murray Steals Home
At age 39, Eddie Murray was one of the grizzled veterans on the 1995 squad. I was with my father fishing for perch. We were bobbing at anchor next to the 5-mile crib with the Saturday day game on the radio. When Eddie Murray broke from third and stole home off of Tiger’s pitcher Mike Moore I asked my dad if it was a joke. It seemed unlikely, but was the real outcome of a wild fifth inning.