Monday, November 30, 2015

Best Postseason Win: Seattle Mariners

The Mariners are better off than some of the other teams whose victories we've reviewed - but not overwhelmingly so, having never reached the World Series and only winning 16 postseason games to date in their 39-year history. In fact, it took nearly 20 years for them to reach the playoffs for the first time, and by that point, the possibility existed that the team would be moved out of Seattle.

Any Mariner fan reading this already knows what came next - and the result is Seattle's entry here. 1995 ALDS Game 5: Mariners 6, Yankees 5 (11). The pitching matchup features David Cone for the second straight entry here; this time, the itinerant ace took the mound for the Yankees, facing off with Andy Benes, whose two-month stint with the Mariners completely escaped my attention (probably because it was rather forgettable; his ERA was over 5).

Benes and Cone combined to retire the game's first nine hitters. The first man on either team to reach was Edgar Martinez, who had just made the transition to full-time DH, and who led off the bottom of the second with a single. That was followed by a hit from Tino Martinez, who's going to make me come up with ways not to type out the full names of both Martinezes throughout this recap. Cone went on to strike out the next three Mariners, though a wild pitch to Luis Sojo advanced the Martinez pair by 90 feet apiece before they were left in scoring position.

Mike Stanley led off the top of the third with a single, but was erased on a double play, and in the bottom of the inning, Joey Cora, not generally regarded as the most threatening member of the Seattle lineup, homered to open the scoring. New York countered quickly, however, as Bernie Williams walked and Paul O'Neill homered to take a 2-1 lead in the top of the fourth. The Mariners responded with equal swiftness on a double by the Martinez who still played the field, a wild pitch, and a run-scoring Jay Buhner single.

Benes worked around a Tony Fernandez double in the fifth, while Cone set the Mariners down in order. The Yankees pulled back ahead in the sixth, largely thanks to Benes, who walked Williams on five pitches, O'Neill on four, and Ruben Sierra on five to load the bases with one out. Don Mattingly followed with a ground-rule double to make it a 4-2 game. After an intentional walk reloaded the bases, a foulout and a flyout ended the inning - with Benes still on the mound, which seems somewhat surprising given that it was an elimination game.

Edgar led off the home sixth with a double, but Cone struck out the next three Seattle hitters. Benes was pulled in the seventh after a two-out walk to Williams, and Norm Charlton retired O'Neill to leave the runner on. Cone was spotless in the seventh, and Charlton worked around a walk in the top of the eighth.

With one out in the bottom of the eighth, Ken Griffey Jr. homered to halve the deficit. Tino drew a two-out walk, and Buhner singled him to second; at that point, the Mariners turned to their bench, with Alex Diaz pinch hitting and Alex Rodriguez pinch running at second. Diaz walked, and pinch hitter Doug Strange did the same, forcing in the tying run before Mike Blowers struck out to leave the bases loaded.

Charlton allowed a Fernandez double and walked Randy Velarde to open the ninth, and the Mariners summoned Randy Johnson from the bullpen, giving him the second-most-dramatic ninth-inning, tie-game relief appearance ever by a starting pitcher named Johnson pitching in a series-deciding game for a team that was making its first playoff appearance after a couple decades of struggling. The Big Unit retired the next three Yankees to preserve the tie. Vince Coleman led off the bottom of the inning with a single, Cora bunted him to second, and Griffey was intentionally walked; Jack McDowell then relieved and ended the inning without further incident, sending the game to extras.

Johnson struck out the side in the top of the tenth; the Mariners threatened in the bottom of the inning on singles by Buhner and Mike Blowers, but McDowell left the runners at first and second. Stanley led off the eleventh with a walk, and Fernandez bunted pinch runner Pat Kelly to second. Velarde then singled Kelly home to put the Yankees in front 5-4. Johnson struck out two of the next three Yankees to end the inning, but the Mariners were three outs away from the end of their season.

The count was never even reduced to two. Cora and Griffey singled, putting runners on the corners. Edgar Martinez then delivered "the hit that saved baseball in Seattle," a double that drove in both runners and ended the game and the series.

The Mariners would go on to take a 2-1 lead in the ALCS against the outstanding '95 Indians before succumbing in six. It's a strange team to write about in some ways, because while a lot of the central figures of the late '90s team were already in place, one of the biggest was just warming up - Alex Rodriguez would win the AL batting title a year later and give Seattle a remarkable quartet of superstars.

But the Mariners had nothing on the Yankees in terms of partially-assembled late '90s teams; New York's corresponding all-time shortstop didn't even play in the postseason at all in '95, and the Yanks were also missing Jorge Posada. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, Tino Martinez played in this series - but for the Mariners; he and Jeff Nelson would be traded to the Yankees in the upcoming offseason, and both would play key roles in the nascent dynasty.

Despite their unparalleled core of Hall of Fame talent, the Mariners couldn't keep up with the Yankees over the ensuing half-decade (to be fair, neither could anyone else). But at least for this one series, baseball provided a reminder that anyone can come out on top.

Especially if they have Ken Griffey Jr, and Randy Johnson, and Edgar Martinez.

The honorable mention section is pretty solid for a team that's only won three postseason series, starting with a pair of additional extra-inning wins; Game 1 of the 2000 ALDS, in which Seattle rallied past the White Sox in 10 innings while holding Chicago's hitters to a 2 for 14 performance with runners in scoring position, and Game 3 of the 1995 ALCS, in which the Indians rallied to tie in the eighth, left potential winning runs in scoring position in the eighth and ninth, and the Mariners finally won in 11. The game before the one highlighted here was also excellent, as the Mariners rallied from an early 5-0 deficit, blew a 6-5 lead in the eighth but erupted for five runs in the bottom of the inning.

Up next is Seattle's other team... kind of. Dedicated historians (and readers of Ball Four) will remember that the Pacific Northwest actually had an expansion team in 1969, but after one unimpressive season, the Pilots moved to Milwaukee and were renamed the Brewers. They'll be the subject of the next installment in the series.

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