Tuesday, August 16, 2011

1995 ALDS: Seattle's Magic Moment

There was a lot of excitement for the two fan bases involved in the 1995 ALDS. For the Yankees, it was their first postseason appearance since 1981, a drought that probably had their fans about ready to give up on the sport. The 14-year drought was the longest for the franchise since Babe Ruth led them to their first World Series in 1921.

Going up against them was the Seattle Mariners, making the first postseason appearance in franchise history. If that wasn't exciting enough for Seattle fans, the Mariners came back from 12.5 games back on August 20 to tie the Angels, then won a one-game playoff for the AL West title. It was, without question, the most exciting season the Mariners had yet had.

But then the Mariners had to face the Yankees, and they had to do so with their ace, Randy Johnson, likely available for only one of the five games. Since Seattle's pitching philosophy that year seemed to be "Randy Johnson, then score in double digits for 4 straight games," that didn't bode well.

The first two games of the ALCS couldn't have gone worse for Seattle. Not only did the Yankees win both games at home, but Game 2 was a 15-inning marathon that drained Seattle's already-suspect bullpen. The Mariners needed a big start from Johnson in Game 3, and he delivered, pitching seven innings and leading the Mariners to their first ever postseason victory. A five-run eighth inning lead to a 11-8 Mariners win in Game 4, setting up a winner-take-all Game 5.

The Game
The Mariners of the mid-90s centered around three transcendent stars. Aside from Johnson in the rotation, they had a lineup built around Edgar Martinez and Ken Griffey, Jr., two of the most gifted hitters of their generation. The 1995 postseason was widely seen as merely the first of many future playoff appearances for that trio. And the Mariners knew they were going to need big performances from all three to win the series. Through four games, all three had delivered.

In a perfect world, the Mariners would have had Johnson pitching Game 5 at home. But with only one day off after his Game 3 start, he was considered unavailable for Game 5. If they were going to beat the Yankees, they would have to do it without him.

For seven innings, things didn't look good. The Yankees had jumped out to an early 4-2 lead, and David Cone was holding down the Mariners. He entered the eighth having already thrown 123 pitches, but Yankees manager Buck Showalter left him in. The Yankees had a young bullpen - including a rookie named Mariano Rivera - and he always showed a preference for veterans over young players.

And so it was Cone on the mound in the top of the eighth when, with one out, Griffey came up in what was the biggest at bat in Mariners history. He took one pitch, a ball. He didn't take the second one. And by the time it landed beyond the right field fence, the Kingdome was louder than perhaps it had ever been. And though they were still down a run when Griffey stepped on home plate, Seattle fans seemed to sense that something magical was going to happen that night.

Cone was still on the mound later that inning when Doug Strange drew a bases-loaded walk, scoring rookie Alex Rodriguez with the game-tying run. By then Showalter realized that Cone was cooked and took him out. But with the game tied and the Kingdome rocking, it was far too late.

If the Kingdome was loud after Griffey's home run, it got even louder in the top of the ninth when the bullpen doors opened and Randy Johnson came jogging to the mound. It didn't matter that two runners were on base with nobody out. With Johnson on the mound, Mariners fans were thinking, there was no way they were going to lose. He got out of the ninth. He struck out the side in the 10th. He was on a roll.

Then, the unthinkable. He gave up a run. The Yankees started the 11th with a walk and a sacrifice, then a seeing-eye single snuck through the left side of the infield to score the go-ahead run. It was stunning. How could Johnson have given up a run? After everything that had happened that year? He got the final two outs on strike outs, but the Mariners' magical season was down to its final three outs.

But look who was due up in the 11th. After Joey Cora, it was Griffey and Martinez. If the Mariners were going to go down, they were going down fighting. Showalter gave the Mariners a break, too, by not going to his closer, John Wetteland, to close out the series, and instead going with Jack McDowell a veteran starter who was making his first career relief appearance. Sure, Showalter liked the veterans, but this seemed ridiculous.

Cora, perhaps knowing he was destined to play just a bit role in the drama, placed a perfect bunt down the first-base line to lead off the inning with a single. Up came Griffey. Of course it was Griffey. He couldn't possibly hit another home run, could he? Well, no. But his single worked just fine. Besides - maybe it was fate. Because up next was Martinez. Johnson and Griffey had each made their marks on this game. Now it was Martinez's turn.

Mariner fans can still see it. The sharp line drive down the left field line. Left fielder Gerald Williams chasing it in vain. The television cutting to Griffey, heading toward third, running the bases faster than he ever had before. The throw coming in, but too late, as Griffey slid home into a pile of delirious teammates. The greatest moment in franchise history.

As high as Seattle was flying after beating the Yankees, they still had some work to do. And it was hard work, facing Cleveland in the ALCS. Cleveland could have been seen as a Cinderella story, considering they hadn't been to the playoffs since 1954, but this team was scary good. The best American League team in at least a decade, if not longer.

But the Mariners gave it a good fight. Still flying high from their incredible Game 5 win, they won Game 1 3-2. Cleveland bounced back to take Game 2, but Game 3 was Johnson's turn. He went 8, the game went 11, and Seattle was back on top of the series.

But that was it. Cleveland won the next two at home to take a 3-2 series lead. Back home in Seattle for Game 6, the Mariners moved Johnson up a game. In theory, the move made sense, as you don't want to get eliminated with your best pitcher sitting and watching. And Johnson pitched valiantly in Game 6, and he was trailing only 1-0 as the game went to the eighth. But then the Yankees scored two runs on one passed ball, and then Johnson gave up a home run to make it 4-0. Lou Piniella took the ball from him at that point, and the Mariner fans gave him a standing ovation. In reality, it might have been an ovation for the entire team for giving them a ride unlike any the city had seen.

The Rundown
What am I doing? Go here to find out. The list so far:

3. Seattle 6, N.Y. Yankees 5 (1995 ALDS)
4. Colorado 9, San Diego 8 (2007 NL Wild Card tiebreaker)
5. N.Y. Yankees 5, Boston 4 (1978 AL East tiebreaker)
6. San Francisco 6, Los Angeles 4 (1962 National League playoff)
7. Chicago 1, Minnesota 0 (2008 AL Central tiebreaker)
8. N.Y. Yankees 5, Boston 3 (1949 American League)
9. Arizona 2, St. Louis 1 (2001 NLDS)
10. Chicago 4, New York 2 (1908 National League makeup game)
11. Boston 12, Cleveland 8 (1999 ALDS)
12. Boston 5, Minnesota 3 (1967 American League)
13. Minnesota 5, Oakland 4 (2002 ALDS)
14. Boston 4, Oakland 3 (2003 ALDS)
15. Cleveland 4, N.Y. Yankees 3 (1997 ALDS)
16. L.A. Angels 5, N.Y. Yankees 3 (2005 ALDS)
17. Texas 5, Tampa Bay 1 (2010 ALDS)
18. San Francisco 3, Atlanta 1 (2002 NLDS)
19. N.Y. Yankees 5, Oakland 3 (2001 ALDS)
20. Seattle 3, Cleveland 1 (2001 ALDS)
21. Chicago 5, San Francisco 3 (1998 NL Wild Card tiebreaker)
22. N.Y. Yankees 7, Oakland 5 (2000 ALDS)
23. Los Angeles 4, Houston 0 (1981 NL West Division Series)
24. Montreal 3, Philadelphia 0 (1981 NL East Division Series)
25. N.Y. Yankees 7, Milwaukee 3 (1981 AL East Division Series)
26. Seattle 9, California 1 (1995 AL West tiebreaker)
27. Chicago 5, Atlanta 1 (2003 NLDS)
28. Houston 12, Atlanta 3 (2004 NLDS)
29. N.Y. Mets 5, Cincinnati 0 (1999 NL Wild Card tiebreaker)
30. Cleveland 8, Boston 3 (1948 American League tiebreaker)
31. Houston 7, Los Angeles 1 (1980 NL West tiebreaker)

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