The Yankees entered the 2001 season as owners of the first three-peat since the A’s of the early ‘70s and winners of four of the last five World Series. They were at the peak of their powers — surely no team, even as mighty as the 116-win Mariners, could unseat them from the mountaintop. Thus the stage was set for perhaps the biggest clash of titans that the ALCS had ever seen.
Final Score: Yankees 3, Mariners 1
Game MVP: Alfonso Soriano
From pretty early on in the regular season, it increasingly felt like a foregone conclusion that the Yankees and Mariners would cross paths in the playoffs. A fated meeting of two behemoths — one the owners of the new regular season wins record and the other the kings of the league — with the winner sure to go on to lift the Commissioner’s Trophy. However, the story was almost cut short before it began.
Seattle fell behind two games to one to a Cleveland staff led by the two-headed monster of Bartolo Colon and CC Sabathia, but roared back in Games 4 and 5 to book their spot in the ALCS. Meanwhile, the Yankees had a stern test facing the 103-win Wild Card A’s and had to rally from down 0-2 on the road to push the series to games in an instant classic — one that featured a certain flip play you may remember.
Such was the backdrop for the 2001 ALCS, as the Yankees would jump out to a 2-0 lead, taking both games at Safeco Field to put the Mariners on the ropes flying east into enemy territory. Seattle clawed a game back in the first of three set to be played in the Bronx, setting up a a Game 4 starting pitching duel between Roger Clemens and Paul Abbott that was a rematch of the previous season’s ALCS Game 4, when the Rocket struck out 15 in a complete game one-hit shutout.
Clemens vs. Abbott II delivered on its promise of a pitchers’ duel, with both starters going five scoreless, Abbott holding the Yankees hitless while Clemens limited the Mariners to one. Abbott did walk eight men in those five frames, but the Yankees failed to capitalize on any of that traffic on the basepaths.
Their first opportunity came in the second when Bernie Williams led off with a walk, but he was promptly thrown out attempting to steal second on the second pitch of the AB. Jorge Posada also walked but became the second Yankee to make an out on the basepaths in the inning, getting thrown out at second attempting to advance on an errant pitch. Abbott actually allowed a pair of walks in each of the second, third, fourth, and fifth innings but navigated out of the jam each time. Meanwhile, Clemens’ only hit was a single served up to John Olerud to begin the fourth, but the Cy Young winner found a strikeout when he needed it most, tallying seven on the night to shut down any hint of Mariners momentum.
Thus, the game would be entrusted to the bullpens, and the Yankees’ relief corps flinched first. Needing only 29 pitches to complete a scoreless sixth and seventh, Ramiro Mendoza came back out for the eighth and perhaps that was asking a tad too much. With two outs, he served up a solo home run to MVP candidate Bret Boone to break the deadlock, 1-0 and send a murmur of unease around the Yankee Stadium crowd.
That trepidation would be short-lived, as the playoff-tested Williams came through in the clutch yet again:
After running the count full with one out against Seattle reliever Arthur Rhodes, Williams got a pitch in the zone that he drove for the game-tying solo blast — his second in as many nights. (Key hits against Rhodes were old hat for the Yankees at this point, too.)
Mariano Rivera worked a perfect top of the ninth on three pitches to give his team a chance to walk it off in front of an expectant home crowd. They didn’t keep us waiting long, as Scott Brosius grounded a one-out single through the left side to set up rookie Alfonso Soriano’s game-winning walk-off two-run home run off Mariners closer Kazuhiro Sasaki.
Although Soriano certainly had pop in his bat and would become an MVP contender as soon as the following season, he was the No. 9 hitter in this lineup and at least six or seven other batters seemed more likely to play this hero’s role. But instead, it was Soriano who sent his veteran teammates home happy.
New York would steamroll a clearly demoralized Seattle squad in Game 5 to take the series four games to one and advance to the Fall Classic for the fourth consecutive season. The 2001 M’s remain the best regular-season team of all time to never reach the World Series.