Friday, May 6, 2011

1995 AL West tiebreaker: The Big Unit's big moment

On August 23, 1995, the Seattle Mariners lost a home game to Baltimore to drop them below .500 at 54-55 and leave them 11.5 games behind California for first in the AL West. From there began one of the most remarkable late-season comebacks in Major League history.

The comeback came in two stages. First came the collapse by the Angels. After winning on August 24, the Angels lost nine games in a row to tighten up the West Division race. While it was an unfortunate time to have a losing streak, the Angels eventually righted the ship and still had a six-game lead on September 8. That's when part 2 of the comeback began. Starting on September 8, the Mariners went on a 14-2 run. The Angels did their part by going on another nine-game losing streak. Suddenly, it was the Mariners who held a three-game lead with only six games to play.

But, the drama wasn't over. The Angels won their final six regular-season game, while the Mariners finished 3-3, allowing the teams to finish in a tie for the AL West title. The tiebreaker game was scheduled for the day after the regular season ended in Seattle, with the Angels looking for their first division title since 1986, and the Mariners looking for their first playoff appearance of any kind.

The Game
Despite the tight finish to the season, the Angels had their ace, Mark Langston, ready to go for the tiebreaker game. Unfortunately for them, the Mariners also had their ace ready to go. And Randy Johnson might have never been better than he had been in 1995, entering the tiebreaker game with a 17-2 record and fresh off his fourth consecutive strikeouts crown. To make matters worse for hitters, Johnson had harnessed his control like never before that year, walking fewer hitters than he ever had and making him that much more unhittable.

For the first four and a half innings, Langston tried to hold off the Mariners. While the Mariners had gotten five runners on base in the first four innings, they hadn't pushed a run across. Finally, they broke through in the bottom of the fifth, when a Vince Coleman single drove home Dan Wilson for the first run of the game.

While it was just a single run, it might as well have been nine runs. The way Johnson was pitching, it seemed utterly impossible that the Angels would be scoring in this game. He was perfect through five innings, with nine strikeouts already. He was as close to unhittable as a pitcher could look.

Johnson finally gave up a hit in the top of the sixth; the weak groundball by number 9 hitter Rex Hundler was so unexpected that people watching were downright shocked when it found its way through to the outfield. But Johnson got out of that inning and cruised through the seventh unscathed, as well.

In the bottom of the seventh, Langston finally cracked. He had been pitching valiantly all afternoon, but it was apparent early on that it would take a superhuman effort to beat Johnson on this day. The Mariners loaded the bases with one out in the bottom of the seventh. Langston got one out on a shallow lineout to left, but he couldn't get the second one. Luis Sojo's ground ball down the first base line turned into a three-run double, which turned into a four-run play as Langston threw the relay throw into the crowd to allow Sojo to score. It was 5-0, and Johnson was cruising. The Kingdome had never been louder, and with good reason; Sojo had just had the biggest hit in franchise history.

Though the Angels would never admit it, the game was over by that point. They put up a little bit of a fight in the 8th, but Johnson shut them down without giving up a run. Then the Mariners touched up the depleted California bullpen for four more runs in the bottom of the eighth.

The top of the ninth was nothing more than a coronation for the soon-to-be division champions. Johnson was still on the mound, the Mariner fans were screaming at full throat ... and Tony Phillips led off the top of the ninth with a home run. It was shocking. Not shocking in game-changing kind of way, but shocking along the lines of what someone would feel if God gave up a home run. Because that's how many Mariner fans viewed Johnson that day. He was the franchise's personal savior.

Johnson shrugged off the home run and set the Angels down in order the rest of the way, punctuating the win with his 12th strikeout of the game. He put both arms in the air and got mobbed by his teammates as Seattle celebrated the first postseason berth in franchise history.

The Mariners' momentum wore out quickly, as they fell behind the New York Yankees 2-0 in the ALDS. But then it was Johnson's turn to pitch, and he led the Mariners to a win in Game 3. With the magic recaptured, the Mariners won Game 4, then summoned Johnson out of the bullpen to win Game 5 in extra innings.

From there, the Mariners' magic ran out, as they fell to the juggernaut Cleveland Indians 4 games to 2 in the ALCS, with an exhausted Johnson losing the deciding game.

The Rundown

25. Seattle 9, California 1 (1995 AL West tiebreaker)
26. Chicago 5, Atlanta 1 (2003 NLDS)
27. Houston 12, Atlanta 3 (2004 NLDS)
28. N.Y. Mets 5, Cincinnati 0 (1999 NL Wild Card tiebreaker)
29. Cleveland 8, Boston 3 (1948 AL tiebreaker)
30. Houston 7, Los Angeles 1 (1980 NL West tiebreaker)

No comments:

Post a Comment