Groz Remembers the 2001 Mariners: Kazuhiro Sasaki, man of mystery

Aug 11, 2021, 12:05 PM
Mariners Kazuhiro Sasaki...
Kazuhiro Sasaki broke the Mariners' saves record in each of his first two seasons. (Getty)

2001: A Baseball Odyssey – a weekly look back at the record-setting 2001 Mariners and the players who made them who they were.

He arrived in 2000 to fix the Mariners bullpen, and did he ever. But despite tremendous success, Kazuhiro Sasaki was largely unknown during his stretch with the Mariners, leaving as abruptly as he arrived.

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He did have one whale of an impact, though.

Sasaki had a professional career that spanned 16 seasons but only two clubs. The first nine were in Japan with the Yokohama Whales (later renamed the Yokohama BayStars) before he was signed to a five-year deal with the Mariners in 2000. Sasaki arrived a finished product at age 32 and immediately became the Mariners’ closer, winning American League Rookie of the Year with 37 saves.

Like the Mariners, Sasaki was even better in 2001. He was a devoted practitioner of the split-fingered fastball, and when he was cooking it was nearly unhittable. Sasaki had set a rookie record for saves in 2000, which was also a new Mariners team record, but it was just a matter of time before he would set the new Mariners record in 2001. In fact, it came on the night of Aug. 18, and somewhat ironically it was not his best performance.

The M’s had taken a 7-0 lead over the Yankees in the Bronx only to see them chip away and make it a 7-5 game going into the ninth. Sasaki was brought in but lacked his trademark command, and he allowed three hits and a run before shutting New York down and securing the record 38th save. Seven more were to follow to make the new record 45, however his trouble with the Yankees would come back to haunt the M’s in the playoffs.

Sasaki had a fine 2002 season, but the following year he lost his closer job and missed time due to some broken ribs, which he claimed he suffered from falling off a suitcase. Amid rumors that ownership asked him to return to Japan for what the Seattle P.I. reported as “indiscreet philandering,” he told the Mariners to keep their $8-plus million for the 2004 season and that he was staying in Japan. And just like that, the brief career of the “Daimajin” in Seattle was over.

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More 2001 Mariners memories from Groz

The infamous Cleveland comeback
When Ichiro became Ichiro
The curious case of Al Martin
• Freddy García replaces the ace he was traded for
• Kaz Sasaki and Seattle’s incredible bullpen
• Seattle hosts an All-Star Game for the ages
• The bounceback year of M’s Hall of Famer Dan Wilson
• Mark McLemore, the all-important 10th man
• Edgar Martinez cements his legacy with his last great season
• Aaron Sele, the pitcher who ‘fell from the sky’
• Bret Boone gave Seattle a huge, surprising boost
• Paul Abbott, the forgotten hero of the historic ’01 M’s
• Introduction: Celebrating the 2001 Mariners, 20 years later

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Groz Remembers the 2001 Mariners: Kazuhiro Sasaki, man of mystery