A Forgotten and Improbable Tribe Comeback

When thinking of incredible, insurmountable comebacks in the history of Major League Baseball, many fans (and especially Tribe fans) will look to August 5 of 2001, when the 61-48 Indians rallied back from two separate twelve-run deficits to shock the 80-30 Seattle Mariners with a stunning 15-14 extra inning walk-off win at Jacobs Field.

The unbelievable end results were heightened by the fact that both teams were very much in the playoff race and were destined to meet again in October, when the Mariners knocked off the Indians in five games in the American League Division Series after winning a Major League record 116 games (a record which still stands today).

Prior to that Herculean effort against the Mariners, the Indians’ largest home comeback at their gem at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario came on May 7, 1999, when the team used an 18-run barrage over its final three innings at the plate to stun the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, 20-11. They accomplished it without Hall of Famer Jim Thome in the lineup, nor Hall worthy (in some eyes) Omar Vizquel, who was out of the lineup nursing a sore quad that had pestered him since mid-April.

A matchup of veteran starting pitchers pitted Tampa Bay’s Bobby Witt against Cleveland’s Dwight Gooden in a 7:08 PM ET first pitch on a breezy mid-70 degree night on the lake front. Gooden cruised through his half of the first unscatched, retiring Quinton McCracken, Dave Martinez, and former Indians prospect Herbert Perry in order. Witt worked around potential troubles in the bottom half of the frame, despite giving up singles to leadoff man Kenny Lofton and three-hitter Roberto Alomar, using a double play ball in between off of the bat of Enrique Wilson to quiet any early threat from the home club.

Wilson’s rough start to the night continued as Gooden came back to the mound in the second. His error at short allowed Fred McGriff to reach safely and move to second. An eight-pitch battle with John Flaherty went the way of the Devil Rays as he singled to right to drive home McGriff with an unearned run and moved to second on an error on the play by Manny Ramirez. After a strikeout by another former friend of the feather Paul Sorrento, Danny Clyburn singled to move Flaherty to third, but David Lamb grounded to first, where Sexson fired to home for the fielder’s choice out before Kevin Stocker grounded into a force at second to put out the potential fire that was coming.

Witt worked himself out of another jam in the second, giving up a leadoff single to Ramirez and a two-out walk to David Justice before getting Sandy Alomar to ground into an unassisted force at third to end the inning.

The game started to tilt in Tampa Bay’s favor in the third when the Devil Rays made some noise. McCracken singled to left and stole second before moving to third on a groundout by Martinez. A single from Perry drove in the game’s second run and McGriff parked a souvenir into the right-center stands for his eleventh homer of the season. The blast, giving the Devil Rays a 4-0 lead at the time, gave him a homer in 34 different MLB parks, a record. Flaherty followed the long ball with a double in a seven-pitch battle with Gooden, but he was stranded as Sorrento and Clyburn both struck out on 3-2 offerings.

The Indians got on the board in the bottom of the third against Witt with a one-out rally. Lofton worked a walk and Wilson doubled him to third with a shot to right. R. Alomar moved the first run across the plate with a grounder to second to make it a 4-1 game, but Ramirez could not drive in Wilson from third as he flew out deep to right.

The Devil Rays knocked Gooden out of the game in the fourth and broke the contest wide open, or so it seemed. With one out, Stocker singled to center and moved to second on a wild pitch. McCracken struck out looking for the second out before Martinez was intentionally walked. Stocker stole third and scored easily on a line drive single to center by Perry to respond to the Tribe’s run, making it a 5-1 game and bringing Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove out to the center of the diamond to send Gooden to the showers. Paul Wagner came on in relief and did the exact opposite of what any reliever is supposed to do when entering from the outfield bullpen by walking the first batter that he faced, McGriff, to load the bases. After that, his defense worked against him as Ramirez jogged to and botched a fly ball by Flaherty (first-pitch swinging after seeing 15 pitches in his first two at bats from Gooden) in a nonchalant, no-look effort to flag down the final out that instead scored both Martinez and Perry on the play. Sorrento doubled to right to add two more before Clyburn grounded to Alomar at second, sending the game to the bottom of the fourth with a 9-1 Indians deficit.

Justice, off to a rough start hitting just .210 on the year entering the night while also dealing with a pulled rib cage from spring training and a left calf strain early in the campaign, chipped a run off of that gap with what seemed to be an otherwise meaningless morale-boosting home run with two outs in the fourth, driving Witt’s third offering to deep right-center to make it a 9-2 game.

Both clubs pitched perfect innings in the fifth (the only time on the night that this happened) before the Devil Rays added on against Wagner. Perry doubled to center with one out and was joined on the base paths by McGriff. Flaherty flied to right for the second out, but Wagner could not get Sorrento, who got his second RBI-hit in as many trips with a single to center to make it 10-2. Wagner hit Clyburn on a payoff pitch to load the bases before Lamb grounded to Alomar to leave the bags full.

Cleveland struck quickly in the sixth with a four-run frame as the offense began to show signs of life. Alomar tripled and scored with ease on a single to left by Ramirez. Travis Fryman struck out before a single by Wil Cordero put two on for Justice. His big day at the plate continued as he popped a 2-1 pitch over the 19-foot wall in left for a three-run blast, with his second big fly of the game making it a 10-6 contest. Future Indians reliever Rick White entered and got the final two outs of the sixth, working around a two-out walk of nine-hitter Richie Sexson.

The pesky McGriff got to the Tribe again in the seventh with Wagner still pitching in extended relief. After needing ten pitches to get the first two batters out, Wagner gave up a double to Martinez and plunked Perry on a 2-2 pitch. McGriff doubled to right, making it 11-6, before Flaherty stranded a pair in scoring position with a fly to center.

The long ball had been the story of the scoring for the Tribe through six innings and that remained the common theme in the seventh as the Indians delivered a big punch to White and the D’Rays. Wilson and Ramirez each singled around a strikeout of Alomar. Fryman, who had been hitless on the day, drove a 2-1 pitch to left that cleared the wall for a three-run home run, suddenly cutting the Devil Rays’ lead to 11-9. Three pitches later, Cordero jumped in on the fun, driving another one over the wall and into the bleachers to give the club back-to-back jacks and a one-run deficit on the scoreboard. Tampa Bay manager Larry Rothchild went to his bullpen for Scott Aldred, who made poor use of the one pitch that he threw on the night when he hit Justice with his lone offering on the right elbow before getting the hook for Jim Mecir. He promptly gave up a double to left to the catcher Alomar before striking out Sexson for the second out. Lofton reached in odd fashion on catcher’s interference (on a 2-2 pitch that was initially grounded to second) to load the bases for Wilson, who slapped a grounder to the right side. Instead of retiring Wilson for the final out of the inning, the second baseman Lamb bobbled the ball and then threw past McGriff into the Devil Rays’ dugout, allowing two across home plate while giving the Indians their first lead of the night at 12-11. The younger Alomar brother walked on four pitches to reload the bases and Ramirez earned his own free pass in an eight-pitch battle to force home another run to give the Indians a 13-11 lead before Fryman grounded into a force at second to end an impressive seven-run, Rays-aided rally.

Sidewinder Steve Reed retired the side in order in the top of the eighth before the revived Tribe bats got back to work against the Devil Rays bullpen. With Eddie Gaillard on as the fourth pitcher of the night for Rothchild, he allowed the first three to reach as Cordero reached on an error at second, Justice singled for his third hit of the game, and S. Alomar singled to center to knock in Cordero, extending the lead to 14-11. A flyout by Sexson and a swinging strikeout by Lofton put two outs on the board before the Indians broke things open in their favor and for good. Wilson walked to load the bases and R. Alomar unloaded them with a grand slam to right, making it an 18-11 game. Ramirez walked and Fryman singled before Cordero sent a single to right-center to make it 19-11. Bryan Rekar came on and gave up another hit to Justice, his fourth of the night, as he singled home a run with a shot to right. S. Alomar struck out to end the inning, but not before the Indians had completed consecutive seven-run rallies and an 18-run outburst over the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings against the Devil Rays’ bullpen.

With a cushy nine-run lead, Rich DeLucia pitched a quiet ninth to close the door, leaving Martinez stranded at first after his two-out walk.

“We ran the gamut, didn’t we?” said Tribe skipper Hargrove following the game in quotes in The Plain Dealer from May 8, 1999. “My emotions? They went from disgusted to livid to happy.”

Witt worked five and one-third, allowing six runs on nine hits despite not factoring in the decision. White was tagged for four runs in an inning of work, including a pair of long balls. Mecir took the loss and the blown save in two-thirds of an inning on the mound, giving up two runs on two hits with two walks and a strikeout. Gaillard had the most bizarre line of the bunch, as he was charged with seven unearned runs in his second appearance of the year despite allowing five hits and two walks in two-thirds of an inning.

The Devil Rays racked up 13 hits, including three from Perry and two each from McGriff, Flaherty, and Sorento. Perry was making just his second start of the season for the Devil Rays after being recalled from Triple-A Durham to replace the injured Wade Boggs on the 25-man roster.

Gooden, coming off of his first quality start of the season on May 1, reverted to some of his poorer outings to start the 1999 season as he was charged with seven runs in three and two-thirds, but only four were earned. Wagner, a victim of lucky circumstance, earned his first win of the season despite allowing four runs (two earned) on five hits with two walks and no strikeouts in three and one-third innings. He was optioned to Triple-A Buffalo in the days that followed and that win proved to be his final MLB appearance of his career. Reed and DeLucia kept the Devil Rays unproductive over the final two innings.

Justice led the Tribe with ten total bases, hitting his fourth and fifth homers of the season as part of a four-hit game while driving in five and reaching base safely in all six trips to the dish. Alomar’s grand slam, his fifth homer of the season, gave him a five-RBI day in a three-hit performance. Wilson, Ramirez, and Cordero also had three-hit games. Sexson was the lone Indians batter to go hitless, while the rest of his teammates piled up 21 knocks of their own.

“I’d say David Justice had a helluva night,” hitting coach Charlie Manuel said in the May 8 edition of The Plain Dealer. “That’s first-class hitting.”

“This was a good game and a bad game for us,” said the second base Alomar brother in the same publication. “We made some errors, but one of the good things to come out of this was David Justice coming out of his slump. He’s such a good hitter. We need him to do what he did tonight.”

The game itself set a Jacobs Field record with 31 runs scored between the two clubs, with 34 hits helping to get those runs across while 19 runners were stranded on base. Six total errors helped make the wacky contest get out of control and the ten pitchers used between the teams made 402 pitches. The Indians used 16 hits in the final three frames to help rack up their 18 runs in the sixth, seventh, and eighth.

“I think we are the most explosive team in baseball,” Fryman shared after the game. “When it comes to offensive potency, this team is unmatched.

“I felt like we were building momentum then [in the sixth after Justice’s three-run home run]. The fans really got into it. This club feeds on our fans. We feed on each other.”

The blunder that nearly cost the Indians the game in the fourth was another case of Manny being Manny, as the right fielder had already begun a reputation of taking plays off and not being as focused on the field as others would have preferred him to be. His second of two errors on the night led directly to a pair of unearned runs crossing home on the play and the game going from a somewhat manageable 5-1 deficit to a 9-1 hole by the time that the final out of the frame was recorded.

“We made some plays in the field that I am not looking for from our players,” Hargrove said after the game in quotes in the following day’s edition of The Plain Dealer. “I expect them to be better than that, and they expect to be better.

“It is enough to say that the issue has been addressed.”

Ramirez’s teammates addressed his no-look catch attempt on Flaherty’s fourth inning fly as well the following day. When the young slugger got to the ball park on Saturday, he found a new glove in his locker. This special Manny model was a pair of gloves laced together. Pitchers Bartolo Colon and Ricardo Rincon, along with reserve catcher Einar Diaz, were responsible for the prank gift.

“We were just kidding around,” said a smiling Colon when asked about the gesture in a quote in the May 9 Plain Dealer. “Manny laughed about it. Everybody laughed.”

The comeback win extended the Indians’ hot start to the year. They moved to 20-8 on the season, the best mark in the Majors, and the club continued to play well throughout the schedule, winning the American League Central and playing host to the wild card Boston Red Sox in the American League Division Series before losing a 2-0 series lead and being knocked out of the playoffs in the first round.

The Indians, a little over two years later, made that stunning comeback an afterthought when they shocked the Seattle Mariners at Jacobs Field on August 5, 2001, by overcoming a 12-0 deficit after three innings by scoring 12 runs in the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings before winning 15-14 in eleven innings.

Photo: JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images (picture from the 2000 season)

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