Sunday, October 14, 2001

Mariners too good to be true

        CLEVELAND — The Seattle Mariners have bulldozed baseball for six months, demolishing records, perplexing probability. They were, perhaps, too good to be true.

        Having matched the major-league mark with 116 regular-season victories, the scourge of Puget Sound now stands nine innings from ignominy. Saturday's 17-2 stomping by the Cleveland Indians left the Mariners one loss from elimination in the American League Division Series — one loss from a lifetime of explanations.

        Their brilliant summer has given way to an autumn of anguish. Their winter of discontent may be on deck. Should they fail to advance to the American League Championship Series, their splendid season may be remembered as a flameout.

        “The consequences are always hanging over your head,” Mariners second baseman Bret Boone said. “This year, once we got into June, we didn't have a tremendous amount of pressure on us. ... (But) if you don't win tomorrow, you go home. We'll see what we're made of tomorrow.”

        The Mariners were made mainly of thumbs Saturday. Boone, the former Gold Glove winner, made two bad throws while suffering four strikeouts. Lou Piniella's pitching staff was in its batting practice mode.

        “There's not really very much you can say about it,” said center fielder Mike Cameron, “except for the fact we didn't play well today.”

        Now, the Mariners must win two in a row to keep playing. To force a Game 5, they must first cope with Cleveland's Bartolo Colon, who pitched eight shutout innings in Game1. If not altogether sleepless, Seattle will report to Jacobs Field today bearing some serious baggage.

        “When you win 116 games, you expect that team to go all the way,” Cleveland shortstop Omar Vizquel said. “But every time you step in the playoffs, it's a completely different story.”

        Regular-season performance is not always a good indicator for October, when a couple of hot pitchers can carry lesser teams to unlikely upsets. In Colon and rookie C.C. Sabathia, the Indians are stronger at the top of their starting rotation than at any time during their recent renaissance.

        The closer you look, the less this series looks like a surprise.

        Sabathia, the 21-year-old rookie, threw 34 pitches in Saturday's first inning, walking in a run after loading the bases on an intentional walk. But with one out and the bases loaded, the industrial-sized lefty retired Jay Buhner and Dan Wilson on successive foul-outs to first baseman Jim Thome.

        “Robbie (Alomar) came up and talked to me,” Sabathia said. “He said: "Everybody knows you can pitch. You've been doing it all year. Just settle down and throw strikes. We are going to score runs.”

        Ultimately, Alomar was guilty of understatement.

        The Indians scored in six of their eight turns at bat, and their 17 runs and 19 hits represented club playoff records.

        Boone capsulized the contest as a “butt-kicking.” Cleveland 's Sabathia used a more pleasant analogy.

        “The closest thing I can put this to is when I was a little kid and my mom would take me to Toys R Us,” Sabathia said. “And you can pick out anything you want.”

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