SEATTLE -- They rode into the postseason with a reputation, and not only lived up to it, but built on it.
|Kazuhiro Sasaki has been closing many doors around the American League this year.
The tail end of the Mariners bullpen definitely held up its end of the bargain during the best-of-five American League Division Series against the Cleveland Indians. Between them, right-hander Jeff Nelson, left-hander Arthur Rhodes and right-handed closer Kazuhiro Sasaki didn't allow a run in 8 2/3 innings.
They surrendered three hits, walked one and struck out 11. That is domination.
"They showed one more time that they have one of the best bullpens in the American League and [Manager Lou Piniella] trusts them a lot," said Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel Monday after the Mariners' series-clinching, 3-1, victory at SAFECO Field. "You have guys like Nelson, Rhodes and Sasaki there, and you know every time after the sixth or seventh inning that's pretty much a win."
That is a formula the Mariners used often during the regular season when they tied a Major League record with 116 wins, compiling a 92-5 record when they led after six innings.
They were 3-0 in the Division Series with leads after six. In Game 2, Nelson, Rhodes and Sasaki protected a four-run lead, working the final three innings. The trio held the Tribe scoreless over the final 2 2/3 innings in Game 4. And they capped off their magnificent week in Monday's Game 5 by retiring nine of the 10 batters they faced.
"They never gave Cleveland an opportunity to bring that tying run to the plate in any of the games they pitched," Mariners Pitching Coach Bryan Price said. "That was the thing so fascinating about it. It never got to the point where a home run was going to tie the game or give them a lead, and that is a great tribute to the guys who came in after [starter Jamie Moyer]. They never provided Cleveland with that type of excitement."
Well, it did happen once in Game 5.
Nelson replaced Moyer in the seventh inning with the Mariners leading, 2-1, and struck out right-handers Juan Gonzalez and Ellis Burks. Left-handed-hitting Jim Thome, who belted 49 home runs during the regular season, came to bat representing the tying run.
The hot hand Piniella had throughout the series worked again. He left Nelson in the game, who retired Thome on a grounder to second baseman Bret Boone.
Nelson also pitched two-thirds of the eighth inning before being replaced by Rhodes.
"When you get into the seventh inning and they have like a two-run lead or a three run lead," Thome said, "it's really tough because they can match up so well. They left Nelson in the game and we had some left handed hitters that we could have pinch hit, but with Rhodes out in the bullpen, you really can't make a move there."
Piniella said he didn't bring a lefty in to face Thome because of the right-handed batters that followed -- Travis Fryman, Marty Cordova and Einar Diaz.
"Lou didn't think they would pinch-hit until they got into the eight and nine slots," Price said.
Piniella plays the final three or four innings of a game expertly. He has a right-left-right-left-right combination that other teams can only dream of having.
"If I was on the other side, I don't know what I would do," Price said. "It is hard to match up. Even though [Norm] Charlton didn't play a big role in this series, he was there if we needed to go to him early. The reason he didn't get a lot of time in this series is because they are a great right-handed hitting team. But having Norm is a huge luxury for Arthur.
"With our bullpen, I wouldn't want to be on the other side, late in the game and down by a run or two," he said.
Just ask the Indians about it.
Jim Street covers the Mariners for MLB.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.