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The Narrative Of The 2001 MLB Season

The 2001 MLB season was marked by record-setting performances in the regular season and dramatic moments in the postseason, all set against the backdrop of the tragedy of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City.

Two of those record-setters came out of the NL West. Barry Bonds’ home run performance of 2001 has a shadow cast over it thanks to the widely held belief that it was fueled by PED use. But by the numbers, it’s a record. Bonds hit 73 home runs. He also drove in 137 runs. He got offensive help from second baseman Jeff Kent and shortstop Rich Aurilia, who hit 37 homers of his own. It was enough to help the Giants paper over mediocre pitching and contend.

Pitching was not a problem by any means in Arizona. Randy Johnson won the Cy Young Award and his 372 strikeouts remain a single-season record. Curt Schilling won 21 games. On the offensive side, the Diamondback attack was fueled by Luis Gonzalez, who ripped 57 home runs and posted 142 RBIs. Reggie Sanders added 33 homers.

Arizona and San Francisco both got in the race from the outset, with the Los Angeles Dodgers nipping at their heels from the outside much of the way. With two weeks to play, the Diamondbacks held a two-game lead over the Giants, while the Dodgers were four out and fading. There was a dual race going on, for both the NL West title and what was then a single wild-card playoff berth.

The NL Central had the same dynamic—a heated two-team race, with one challenger on the outside. The Houston Astros had a terrific offense that was led by Lance Berkman’s .331 batting average, 34 home runs and 126 ribbies. First baseman Jeff Bagwell hit 39 homers and drove in 130 runs. Moises Alou rolled up numbers of .331, 27, and 108 in the Triple Crown categories. And future Hall of Fame second baseman Craig Biggio had another steady year.

Throughout the summer months, Houston was battling with the Chicago Cubs at the top of the division. The Cubs were led by Sammy Sosa, and his 64-homer campaign—another number widely assumed to be due to PED use. But the Cubs didn’t have a lot of depth and moved to the fringe of the race in September. The Astros, save for 16-game winner Wade Miller, struggled with their pitching. And the door was open for the St. Louis Cardinals to come on strong.

A 21-year-old named Albert Pujols set a rookie record with 130 RBIs. He also batted .329 and hit 37 bombs. The offense got more muscle from Jim Edmonds, who hit .304, homered 34 times and drove in 110 runs. Matt Morris finished third in the Cy Young race, winning 22 games.

Down the stretch they came, Arizona and San Francisco in the West, Houston and St. Louis in the Central, and one team destined to be left at home when the playoffs began. By the final weekend, the Cards had surged ahead of the Astros by one game and secured at least a wild-card spot. The Giants had their backs to the wall—two back of the Diamondbacks and two back of the Astros.

When San Francisco lost on Friday, while both other contenders won, it was official—the Giants, even with the single-season home run leader, would stay home. St. Louis and Houston finished tied at 93-69 apiece. Arizona’s 92 wins put them in.

The Atlanta Braves were the dominant team of the NL East in this era. They had the best pitching in the league. The two Hall of Fame greats, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine led the way. The Braves got production in the lineup from another Hall of Famer, third baseman Chipper Jones, who batted .330, hit 38 homers and racked up 102 ribbies. Andruw Jones homered 34 times and drove in 104 runs.

But the two Jones’ didn’t get much help and the Atlanta offense was one of the worst in the National League. That left room for the Philadelphia Phillies to get in the race. The Phils had four good young players in Jimmy Rollins, Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell, and Scott Rolen. They came blazing out of the gate and led the Braves by 6 ½ games on Memorial Day.

Atlanta began chipping away at the lead and nudged into first over the summer, holding a one-game edge on Labor Day. But the veteran Braves couldn’t pull away. The margin was still a narrow half-game with two weeks to go. Finally, Atlanta pushed out to a three-game lead and had a tie clinched going into the final weekend. On Friday, that struggling offense dropped 20 runs on the Florida Marlins to clinch the NL East again.

The New York Yankees were the gold standard in major league baseball, having won three consecutive World Series. The Yankee bid for a four-peat was led by great pitching. Roger Clemens went 20-3 and won the Cy Young Award. Mike Mussina won 17 games. Mariano Rivera racked up 50 saves and Mike Stanton keyed a deep and dependable setup team.

New York’s offense was a little more pedestrian, ranking fifth in the American League for runs scored. But with Tino Martinez slugging 34 homers and driving in 113 runs, Derek Jeter hitting .311, and both Jeter and Bernie Williams popping 20-plus dingers, the Yankees scored more than enough to win.

For a half-season, New York and Boston were in a stirring race in the AL East. But the Red Sox fell hard in the late summer, out of playoff contention entirely. Meanwhile, the Yanks kept surging and this race was all but put to bed by early September.

Of all the great performances we’ve covered to date, there’s still a big one sitting out there. No team in the history of baseball ever had a more dominant season than the Seattle Mariners did in 2001.

Seattle had made a splash in the offseason when they signed Ichiro Suzuki, already a legend in his native Japan. Ichiro proved to be no ordinary rookie here in the United States. He batted .350, stole 56 bases, and won the American League MVP award.

The Mariners had players enjoying huge years up and down the lineup. Second baseman Bret Boone finished third in the MVP vote, batting .331, hitting 37 homers and driving in 141 runs. Edgar Martinez drove in 116 runs. Mike Cameron drove in 110 more. John Olerud finished with 95 RBIs. Freddy Garcia won 18 games and placed third in the final Cy Young tally. Jamie Moyer was a 20-game winner and Aaron Sele added 15 more Ws. Arthur Rhodes and Kazuhiro Sazaki made for a lights-out bullpen at the end of games.

Seattle had to be that good because there was another great team in their own division. The Oakland A’s, put together by Billy Beane, were emerging as a force. Jason Giambi finished second in the MVP voting, with a .342 batting average, 38 homers and 120 RBIs. The left side of the infield, Miguel Tejada at short and Eric Chavez at third, combined for 63 homers and 227 ribbies. Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito were the rotation’s Big Three, and they combined to win 56 games.

It took Oakland a little while to get started, and by then Seattle was off to the races. The Mariners had a 12-game lead by Memorial Day. When the All-Star Game came to the Pacific Northwest, the Mariners were the toast of baseball, sitting on a 19-game cushion. By the time all was said and done, they had 116 wins and the greatest regular season in history.

The A’s played themselves into serious contention for the wild-card spot by the All-Star break, and then in late summer, took off. Oakland blew past Boston for the wild-card lead and coasted home in September. The A’s finished with 102 wins.

Cleveland filled out the playoff bracket in the American League. The Indians, after winning five straight AL Central titles from 1995-99, had narrowly missed the postseason in 2000. With one of the league’s top offenses, they bounced back in ‘01. Roberto Alomar, their Hall of Fame second baseman, hit .336, popped 20 homers and drove in 100 runs. Juan Gonzalez had stats in the Triple Crown categories of .325, 35 and 140. Alomar and Gonzalez were 4-5 in the MVP voting.

What the Indians did not have was reliable pitching. Minnesota, led by a good young third baseman in Corey Koskie, and getting good pitching from Joe Mays, jumped out quickly and the Twins led this division by five games at the All-Star break. But August was a turning point in this race just as it was in others around the league. By Labor Day, the roles had reversed, and the Tribe led by five. Cleveland kept Minnesota at arm’s length and wrapped up another division crown with room to spare.

In the Division Series round, Atlanta opened up by sweeping out Houston in three straight. That was notable because the other three matchups all went the full five games.

Seattle lost two of the first three to Cleveland, including a 17-2 shellacking in Game 3. Their historic season on the brink, the Mariners rallied to win Games 4 & 5 and advance to the ALCS.

New York came even closer to extinction. The Yankees lost the first two games at home to Oakland. Their 1-0 lead in Game 3 was close to slipping away in the bottom of the seventh. A’s baserunner Jeremy Giambi rounded third and appeared ready to score easily when the throw went up the first base line. But, in one of the sport’s legendary plays, Jeter had alertly seen the throw go awry, used the back of his glove to flip it to catcher Jorge Posada, who applied the tag to Giambi, who had no idea the play was going to be close.

The Yankee lead was preserved. They won that game, and the whole trajectory of the series changed. New York blew out Oakland in Game 4, came back home and completed the comeback. In the immediate post-9/11 atmosphere, where the entire nation had rallied to New York City, this seemed like one small piece of baseball destiny.

Arizona and St. Louis’ Game 5 went to the ninth inning tied 1-1, a terrific pitcher’s duel between Schilling and Morris. But when the Cards finally had to go to the bullpen, the Diamondbacks broke through—a two-out RBI single from Tony Womack sent Arizona forward.

The Diamondbacks-Braves matchup in the NLCS was rather anticlimactic. After splitting the first two games in the desert, Arizona went to Atlanta and just took the series over. The D-Backs outscored the Braves 19-7, sweeping all three games in Atlanta and capturing the pennant.

More surprising was that the Mariners-Yankees ALCS battle proved anticlimatic. This was the matchup baseball fans had waited for all season—the greatest regular season team ever against the reigning dynasty. But New York’s pitching made its own statement, taking the first two on the road and then ultimately clinching the pennant in five games back in the Bronx.

The World Series would be an illustration of the maxim that a great pitcher—or two of them—can own a short series. Johnson and Schilling were both dominant in winning the first two games. When the Fall Classic returned to New York though, the Yankees flipped the script.

Game 3 was an electric moment for the entire nation. President George W. Bush threw out the first ball, something intended as a cathartic message for the nation that the Commander-in-Chief was stepping out, right into New York City, after the terrorist attacks. The Yankees then pulled out a 2-1 win to get back in the Series.

The next two nights seemed to suggest destiny was in the air for New York. They trailed late in both games. Each time, they tied it with a late home run and then won in extra innings. The series went back west with the Yankees now in control.

But the Diamondbacks still had Johnson and Schilling ready to go. The former won Game 6 easily. And in Game 7, they tag-teamed. Schilling staged an epic duel with Clemens. New York led 2-1 and Johnson pitched an inning in relief. Then, in the ninth, the Diamondbacks rallied. Another big hit by Womack, this one a double, was the biggest blow. And Gonzalez, who had hit so many home runs this season, saw his biggest hit be a blooper over a drawn-in infield. This one scored the winning run and the Arizona Diamondbacks were champs.

The 2001 baseball season was a historic one and continues to be this day.