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 round?"
Righthander Brett Tomko, dressing in the adjacent stall, laughed. "We celebrate after every round, Kazu," he said. "I'm dousing you first."
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? 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 inherited.
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? 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 work.
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."