Last Thursday afternoon, the off day between Games 2 and 3 of the
Division Series, Seattle Mariners closer Kazuhiro Sasaki sat in a
nearly vacant Safeco Field clubhouse. The team had finished its
workout two hours earlier, and now clubhouse attendants were
unfurling thick rolls of plastic sheeting, tacking the makeshift
tarpaulins above each locker so they could be quickly dropped if
any celebratory champagne-spraying broke out over the next two
days. Seattle had swept the first two games from the White Sox in
Chicago and was on the brink of its first trip to the American
League Championship Series since 1995. Pointing to the plastic, a
visitor asked Sasaki, a folk hero and popular product endorser in
his native Japan, if he would add a bottle of the sake brand that
bears his name to the party. "That's what the plastic is for?" he
asked through an interpreter. "We celebrate if we win this
Righthander Brett Tomko, dressing in the adjacent stall, laughed.
"We celebrate after every round, Kazu," he said. "I'm dousing you
Consider that exchange the final step in Sasaki's assimilation
into American baseball culture. (His teammates had already taught
him the requisite English and Spanish profanity.) Consider the
addition of Sasaki the final step in the Mariners' transformation
back into a team suited for the rigors of October. On Friday,
Seattle closed out the series with a 2-1 win built on a solid
outing by starter Aaron Sele, a third straight door-slamming
performance by its bullpen and a game-winning drag bunt by pinch
hitter Carlos Guillen. Afterward Sasaki, who signed a two-year,
$9.5 million contract with the Mariners last winter, partied as
if he'd been planning it for weeks, standing shirtless in the
clubhouse as teammates drenched him with beer and champagne. "I
am happier than I ever was in Japan," he gushed, strong words for
someone who pitched the Yokohama Bay Stars to a Japan Series
title in 1998.
Why not? While the entire Seattle staff was stellar in the
series, holding the American League's highest-scoring team to
seven runs in three games and MVP candidate Frank Thomas to 0 for
9 with four walks, the Mariners' relievers were a marvel, and an
unlikely one at that. "The key to the series was the job our
bullpen did," said manager Lou Piniella, whose team now moves on
to a showdown with the New York Yankees. In 11 2/3 innings of work
Sasaki and his colleagues got two wins, didn't allow a run, gave
up three hits, struck out 12 and stranded all nine runners they
A strong pen may be as inconceivable to Seattle fans as a
court-ordered split of Microsoft, and choosing the most heroic
hurler of the bunch isn't easy. Was it Tomko, a former starter,
who held the fort with 2 2/3 strong innings when Freddy Garcia
faltered early in Game 1, setting the stage for Seattle's 7-4
comeback win in 10 innings? How about righthander Jose Mesa, who,
other than an intentional walk to Thomas in Game 1, retired all
six hitters he faced? Or could it have been lefthander Arthur
Rhodes, who pitched in all three games, stranding three runners?
Then there's Sasaki, who saved Games 1 and 2 in dominating
fashion: He allowed one hit and whiffed five in two innings of
Sasaki, 32, who holds the alltime Japanese saves record and this
season set the major league rookie mark, with 37, cruised into
the American League Championship Series having allowed only two
runs in his last 21 innings. After a strong start to the season,
he slumped as hitters learned to lay off his trademark forkball.
When he had two straight ninth-inning meltdowns in May, Piniella
stripped him of the closer's role.
Sasaki won his job back by more consistently spotting his
signature pitch for strikes, and he became more aggressive with a
fastball that gained velocity as the season progressed. A pitch
that topped out at 90 mph in the spring now regularly zips in at
93. "Early on he wanted to get all his outs with the forkball,
but now he gets them with his fastball, too," says pitching coach
Bryan Price. "He turned the tables: If hitters sit on the
forkball, they can't catch up to his fastball."
Against the White Sox, Sasaki unveiled another weapon that the
Yankees' hitters will now have to consider: a curveball that he
hadn't thrown in a game in three months. In Game 2 he froze
Charles Johnson with the hook for strike two, then caught him
gazing at a fastball for strike three. "Kazu looked at me a
little strange when I called for [the curve], but I wanted them
to have something different to think about," says catcher Joe
Oliver. "I give him credit. He threw a great pitch. That made it
0-2, and we could then do anything we wanted."
Sasaki credits his newfound velocity to a continued recovery from
1999 elbow surgery and to increased comfort in his new
surroundings. He wasn't the only one in the clubhouse adjusting
to a new culture. These are not the Mariners of yore. Beginning
with the first day of spring training, when Piniella set up a
pitching machine in an auxiliary batting cage and sent the entire
team through daily bunting boot camp, the Mariners reinvented
themselves to fit their spacious ballpark. Gone is the team that
regularly finished among the league leaders in home runs, only to
see many of those clouts wasted by an execrable bullpen.
In its place is a team proficient in skills thought to be as
endangered in the Northwest as the spotted owl. The Mariners led
the league with 63 sacrifice bunts and had the second-fewest
errors, with 99. Additionally, the bullpen converted 73% of its
save opportunities, the highest success rate in the league. "We
do things we haven't done in Seattle in a few years," says
Piniella. "It's not small ball; it's baseball."
Both of Seattle's Game 3 runs were set up by bunts, including one
by Alex Rodriguez in the fourth inning that Piniella didn't call.
"That's how you have to play at Safeco Field," said Rodriguez,
who had 41 homers and zero sac bunts during the regular season.
"I wouldn't try that play in any other ballpark."
Piniella's fingerprints were all over everything else the
Mariners did--Guillen's game-winning bunt past first baseman
Thomas, for example. White Sox skipper Jerry Manuel acknowledged
after the series that his team was "outmanaged." Added Seattle
outfielder Jay Buhner, who hit one of the Mariners' four homers
in the series, "This year Lou has had things he hasn't had here
before: veterans on the bench, a bullpen, veteran starters. Lou
was way ahead of every situation in this series. It was awesome
to watch him manage."
Piniella also has experience, having relied on a strong corps of
relievers to guide the Cincinnati Reds to a World Series title in
1990. In fact, only that Reds bullpen and the bullpen of the
Yankees' 1981 ALCS-winning team, on which Piniella played,
matched the Mariners' run of scoreless innings in a postseason
series. "Oh, I don't know," was Piniella's answer when asked if
this team reminded him of the Cincy squad. "One thing that is
similar is that I had a bullpen with power arms over there, and
we have a power bullpen here."
Piniella made that observation after Game 3, between celebratory
sips of vodka from a Styrofoam cup. Sasaki's sake--a bottle of
which stands in Buhner's locker--stayed on the shelf for this
party. Better that it's conserved. He wasn't expecting to crack
it open until later in October anyway.
THE SCOUT'S VIEW
Rickey Henderson LF
.238, 4 HRs, 30 RBIs
Hits so-so stuff. Looks for walks. Marginal defender; can run on
him. At end of the line, but has lots of experience.
Mike Cameron CF
.267, 19 HRs, 78 RBIs
Outstanding defense, with good range and good arm. Used to be
dead high-fastball hitter; now hitting pitches down in the zone.
Alex Rodriguez SS
.316, 41 HRs, 132 RBIs
Best player in baseball. Good range, very good arm. Still not
recovered from knee injury--was a good runner, now average.
Edgar Martinez DH
.324, 37 HRs, 145 RBIs
One of game's best hitters. May have a bad elbow. When healthy
can hit the ball out to left and right; don't think he can hit it
out to rightfield now.
John Olerud 1B
.285, 14 HRs, 103 RBIs
Hits average fastballs, but in last couple of months hasn't
caught up with good ones. Can jam him. Very good hands on
Jay Buhner RF
.253, 26 HRs, 82 RBIs
Great comeback year. Mariners may have lost division because he
was hurt in August. Still a very good defender, but good
fastballs eat him up.
Joe Oliver C
.265, 10 HRs, 35 RBIs
Calls an aggressive, National League-style game. Throws O.K.
Can't hit good stuff, but can hit mistakes a long way.
David Bell 3B
.247, 11 HRs, 47 RBIs
A marginal defender, but not as erratic as Carlos Guillen, and
Piniella wants to win with pitching and defense. Warning-track
Mark McLemore 2B
.245, 3 HRs, 46 RBIs
Limited range. A mistake hitter. Doesn't catch up well to hard
stuff but getting by with smarts. Patient; looks to take a walk.
3B Carlos Guillen has more offensive tools than Bell but is
erratic defensively. OF Stan Javier has no power and can be
jammed, but knows his limitations. OF Raul Ibanez, a very good
defender with a very good arm, can play either corner outfield
position in the late innings. C Dan Wilson has lost a lot of bat
speed and guesses a lot at plate. Arm used to be very good but
now only average.
Freddy Garcia RHP (9-5, 3.91 ERA) Has a very good fastball, very
good change and good curveball, but makes mistakes in the strike
zone. At times falls in love with change or fastball and gets
Aaron Sele RHP (17-10, 4.51 ERA) Average fastball. Very good
curve. Home plate umpire very important when he's pitching. Bad
news if ump squeezes him and he has to come in with fastball.
Paul Abbott RHP (9-7, 4.22 ERA) Fastball-changeup pitcher; was
death on lefties last year because of changeup but hasn't had
same success this year. Scuffled down the stretch.
John Halama LHP (14-9, 5.08 ERA) Junkballer with below-average
fastball. Needs hitters to chase a lot but in postseason will
face better hitters who don't chase as much. A five-inning
pitcher--has difficult time getting through order three times.
RHP Kazuhiro Sasaki has been lights-out down the stretch with 90
to 92 mph fastball and almost unhittable splitter. Now has equal
confidence in both. RHP Jose Paniagua has a very good fastball at
92 to 94 mph and a good slider and a splitter. Now challenges
hitters, something he hasn't done in past. LHP Arthur Rhodes has
very good fastball and excellent slider, and throws strikes. Guys
with average bat speed can't catch up to fastball. A major reason
why this team is in playoffs. RHP Brett Tomko has great arm and
enough quality pitches to be in somebody's rotation soon. Command
can be problem. Good long man out of pen. RHP Jose Mesa still
throws 93 to 96 mph but sometimes with no idea where the ball is
going. He's Piniella's man when Seattle needs a strikeout with
average hitter up. LHP Robert Ramsay is a starter in waiting. Has
the pitches and knows how to pitch.
HOW TO BEAT THEM
Shut down A-Rod and Edgar. You play a four-inning game against
Seattle: the innings when Rodriguez and Martinez come up.
Seattle's bottom guys need to get on base to turn over the
lineup, and their starters need hitters to chase stuff out of the
zone. If hitters don't chase, Mariners have big problems.
Even White Sox manager Jerry Manuel admitted he was "outmanaged."
highest-scoring team to seven runs and Frank Thomas to 0 for 9
with four walks.