Having made a mockery of a race that found them beginning the weekend with a 12.5 game lead in the American League West, the Houston Astros appear ready to take on a much more daunting opponent than any they’ve faced.
The 2001 Seattle Mariners.
Owners of an A.L. record 116 victories, the ’01 Mariners’ place in baseball history — OK, let’s be specific: regular-season baseball history — has remained secure to the point no team has come close to challenging it.
But as the Astros keep on keeping on, they are compiling numbers that draw comparisons to those that dazzled the world 16 years ago. The Mariners ended up with a winning percentage of .716. A 13-3 defeat to Seattle on Friday put the Astros’ winning percentage at .667, on pace for 108 victories.
The similarities between the magic Lou Piniella’s team created then and what A.J. Hinch’s club is doing now extend beyond gaudy division leads.
The Mariners were 57-24 at home, and even better (59-22) on the road. Same with the Astros, 23-16 in Houston and a phenomenal 27-9 (going into Saturday) away from Minute Maid Park.
“I didn’t put any limitations on this team, so I don’t have a baseline of how many games I expected to win,” Hinch said a few weeks ago. Asked if any aspect of the Astros’ ascent surprised him, the manager replied: “Maybe the ability to hang in there when things aren’t going our way. There is a calmness about our team that has matured over the last year. I don’t know if that surprises me, or if it just makes me very proud.”
The Mariners offensive attack was led by the one-two MVP punch of right fielder Ichiro Suzuki and second baseman Bret Boone, surrounded by the All-Star likes of Mike Cameron in center, John Olerud at first and Edgar Martinez as designated hitter. The Astros are similarly constructed behind such young superstars as shortstop Carlos Correa, second baseman Jose Altuve and outfielder George Springer.
An underrated aspect of the ’01 Mariners was depth, both in the bullpen (Kazuhiro Sasaki saved a club-record 45 games, and fellow All-Star Jeff Nelson was superb as an eighth-inning set-up man) and around the diamond. Veteran Mark McLemore didn’t receive MVP consideration, but his versatility as an infielder/outfielder proved invaluable.
Bounced from his everyday job at second base by Boone, a free-agent signing before the season, McLemore stewed over his apparently reduced role during spring training. Piniella placated McLemore by penciling him in the lineup anywhere and everywhere.
The Guy Without A Position ended up with 409 at-bats, hitting .286.
Houston’s version of McLemore is Marwin Gonzalez, who has made at least 10 starts at third base, first base and left field, in addition to contributing as a backup at short, second and right field. Gonzalez went into Saturday hitting .318, with 13 homers and 41 RBIs. The six-year veteran owns career-high numbers in on-base percentage (.407) and slugging percentage (.591).
One concern for the Astros is the durability of their pitching rotation: Collectively, Houston’s starters have spent almost as much time on the disabled as Seattle’s starters.
Ace Dallas Keuchel had established himself as a Cy Young Award front runner — he was 9-0, with a 1.67 ERA — when he was scratched from a June 7 start with neck discomfort. Keuchel remains sidelined, though he’s throwing again. Recuperation timetables tend to be vague when the issue is a pain in the neck.
The starting pitching for the 2001 Mariners appeared solid, with Freddy Garcia anchoring a rotation augmented by Jamie Moyer, Aaron Sele, Paul Abbott and John Halama. But general manager Pat Gillick sensed trouble, and tried to swing a deal for an ace as a two-month rental.
No deal could be made. The Mariners last move before the July 31 interleague deadline was claiming Baltimore outfielder Gene Kingsale off waivers on July 16.
Gillick’s premonition was realized in the playoffs, after Garcia got rocked in the opener of a best-of-five series against Cleveland. The Mariners survived the scare, but the rotation didn’t, and they ended up facing a succession of unfavorable matchups against the Yankees, who won the league championship series in five games.
Fatigue was a factor, not just physically but mentally. When the quest to set a big-league record for regular-season victories fell short at the finish line, batteries were low on juice. There had been no clubhouse celebrations following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, no outlet for a half-hour of giddy stupidity, and what had been anticipated as a triumphant World Series tuneup turned into a week-long slog.
The Astros are not familiar with how a Seattle team stumbled after winning 116 games. But as long as they sustain their stride, they will learn all about the record-book barrier of 116 victories, shared by the 2001 Mariners and the 1906 Cubs.
Those Cubs were upset by the White Sox in the World Series. A cruel sport, huh? The Cubs won 116 of 154 and set a winning-percentage standard of .763 that still stands after 110 years.
Yet it finished as the second-best team in Chicago.