The 2001 New York Yankees were primed for a four-peat. It was the last hurrah for most of the core squad which had contributed to three consecutive titles and four in five seasons. One fluky inning prevented the Yankees from defeating the Arizona Diamondbacks and becoming the first team to four-peat since the 1949-53 club reeled off five straight titles.
One player who contributed to the title run of 1996-00 but wasn’t on the 2001 squad was a reliever and right-handed setup man, Jeff Nelson. One could argue that Nelson, who left for more green by returning to the Seattle Mariners, was one of the main bridges to closer Mariano Rivera. In fact, for a time the Yankees had so much trouble replacing Nelson, they eventually got sick of one week of Armando Benitez and re-acquired Nelson from the M’s in 2003.
In Game 7, Roger Clemens started and went 6.1 innings, Mike Stanton recorded the final two outs in the seventh, Rivera faced four batters in the eighth and struck out the side, then we all know what happened in the ninth. Perhaps sending Ramiro Mendoza out for the eighth would’ve made for a fresh ninth for Mo and he strikes out the side for the clincher. Then again, if you have the lead late you can’t argue with going to Mo.
However, this is where it all comes back to usage and not having Nelson, who was a 2001 All-Star and posted a spotless ERA in the postseason. You’ll also recall the Yankees attempted to make up for those innings by trading for the dreadful Jay Witasick and Mark Wohlers. Wholers recorded two outs in the 2001 playoffs and Witasick recorded five outs, uttering the dubious quote to Derek Jeter that “at least I got to pitch in a World Series,” after getting smoked in relief in Game 6 of the World Series.
During the 2001 regular season, Rivera appeared in a career-high 71 games and his 80.2 innings were the most since his 1996 campaign in which he was a setup man. In addition, Rivera appeared in a postseason-high 11 games and 16 innings.
Could Nelson and his 65.1 regular season frames and 5.1 in the postseason taken some of the stress off Rivera? Most likely. A four-peat? Most definitely.