10/2/95, Revisited

Remember, sometimes the Mariners are good to us.

(Game box score)

Biggest Contribution: Randy Johnson, +50.4%
Biggest Suckfest: Dan Wilson/Jay Buhner, -8.7%
Most Important Hit: Sojo double, +17.2%
Most Important Pitch: Phillips strikeout, +5.1%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): +50.4%
Total Contribution by Hitters: -7.3%

(What is this?)

It's a funny thing about comebacks - you can score however many unanswered runs or win as many consecutive games as you want, but if you don't wind up in front at the end, nobody remembers. In this respect, one could argue that fandom transcends statistical probability; after all, rallying from six down to win 7-6 is way more satisfying than rallying from nine down and losing 9-8, even if the latter has longer odds of taking place. Wins come first and the "how" comes second, no matter the drama. That's just how it is, and that's how it's always been.

With that in mind, it's almost impossible to overestimate the significance of the Mariners' one-game playoff against the California Angels in October '95. There was an incredible amount at stake, from the emotional state of the overnight fan base to the long-term fate of the franchise. Trailing California by 11 games on August 3rd, the Mariners caught fire and the Angels didn't, setting the stage for the biggest game in Seattle history. But that wasn't enough. That couldn't be enough. You don't get that far, come up short, and shrug it off. Without taking that one final step, nobody cares how much you accomplished, because in the end you're still watching someone else's celebration. For the first time since their inception, the Mariners had a change to grant themselves a winning identity. They needed this game.

For the team's part, they weren't taking themselves too seriously. Said Mike Blowers:

We'd flip on the TV or ask one of the writers what the Angel score was. 'What, they lose again?' We're all cracking up, asking, 'Can you believe it?' We were holding up our end, and we can't believe they're not winning.

Added Jay Buhner:

There was a total dichotomy between the two teams. We were finding every way in the world to win, and they were finding every way in the world to lose. We were winning in the most ridiculous ways, against the best closers and starters. They were booting the ball, throwing wild pitches. We were scratching our heads and laughing.
...
Man, they spit the hook.

If the mood in the clubhouse the morning of the game was positive, the fan base was apprehensively optimistic. On the one hand, the Mariners had been on a tear for two months, nearly unbeatable on their own turf, but on the other they'd dropped two games in two days to lose sole possession of first place, and that was terrifying. For the M's to go from 11 back on August 3rd to two up on September 29th to second place and out of the playoffs on October 2nd...that would be a psychological cock punch to the extent that most people would rather they'd never competed in the first place. If the easiest way to make someone happy is to take something of theirs away and then give it back, the easiest way to make someone sad is to give them a surprise and then take it away. Generated publicity and enthusiasm aside, losing this game to the Angels would be the most devastating event in the history of the organization, for everyone involved.

The good news? The Mariners had a 6'10 not-so-secret left-handed weapon that hadn't pitched in four days. Randy Johnson won the Cy Young in 1995, and for good reason - his 18-2 W/L record was the best in the league, and his 2.48 ERA was 30 points worse than his FIP. His 12.3 K/9 ratio still stands as the fifth-best of all time, behind Randy Johnson, Kery Wood, Pedro Martinez, and Randy Johnson. Simply put, Randy had been at his most dominant all year long, and as a result it probably wasn't a coincidence that the Mariners were where they were in the standings despite a painfully top heavy and paper-thin rotation. Now they just needed him to step up one more time. Once more, Randy, and you'll win over the city forever.

Randy's opponent that day was the comically ironic Mark Langston, California's de facto ace by virtue of his sparkling 15-7 record. Head-to-head, it looked like a total mismatch - where Langston had allowed zero runs in just one start that season, Randy'd done it eight times - but all of that means very little when you're talking about a single game. One bad pitch or one defensive miscue and all of a sudden you're sitting at home watching the playoffs a day later wondering what happened. So, where fans and Mariners alike were thrilled to have Randy Johnson on the mound for the decisive contest, no one wanted to jump the gun. Either Randy would dominate and the Mariners would win or Randy would struggle and the Mariners wouldn't, and that was as much as anyone could say. Brash outward confidence concealed internal terror.

Eventually it finally came to be gametime - bright and early on a Monday workday, thanks to MLB's unparalleled scheduling awesomeness. And almost as soon as the first pitch arrived did Randy put to rest any concerns over how he'd handle the pressure of starting this thing on three-days' rest. Tony Phillips popped out, Gary DiSarcina grounded out faster than you could say "Gary DiSarfuckingcina is batting second?", and Jim Edmonds whiffed to end the top of the first. The usual for Randy; he made righties look stupid and lefties look mentally retarded. Splits against left-handed batters for Randy that season: .129/.196/.188. Lefties hit Randy Johnson about as well as Randy Johnson hits anyone.

Vince Coleman led off the bottom of the first with a single, and everything seemed to be going according to plan. He'd get bunted to second, steal third, score on a Griffey hit or sac fly, and then rest easy as Randy protected the lead for another eight innings. You couldn't draw it up any better. Sure enough, there's the Sojo bunt. Scoring position now, with third base looking every so ripe for the taking...

But then a funny thing happened. Andy Allanson, forced into action because Marcel Lachemann wouldn't dare start a left-handed Jorge Fabregas, gunned Coleman down on his way to third. Vince Coleman, the player with the sixth-most stolen bases of all time. Nailed by a backup catcher whose name sounds like something a stupid guy makes up when he's faking an identity over the phone. This wasn't how it was supposed to go. Griffey would go on to walk, and Edgar singled, but a Buhner groundout left the M's with no runs on three baserunners. Something was wrong.

Randy would hold up his end of the bargain, not allowing an Angel to so much as reach base until there were two gone in the sixth, but the struggle to break through against Langston was troubling. Blanked in the second. Blanked in the third. Blanked in the fourth. Someone reached base in every inning, but each time Langston was able to wriggle out of danger without a scratch. The longer the game went on like this, the better California's chances were of stealing the game. The lineup had to do something.

God bless you, fifth inning. Eager to atone for his earlier mishap, Coleman came to the plate with two on and slapped a roller into left field, scoring Dan Wilson from second before Garret Anderson's throw could make it home. Suddenly the Kingdome was rocking off its foundation all over again, the roof in danger of literally blowing off should Luis Sojo deliver a big hit and extend the lead.

5-4-3. Inning over. The Mariners got what they wanted, as Randy was one of the safer pitchers to whom one could hand a 1-0 lead, but it was still too close. Either Randy needed to conserve some pitches or the offense needed to put some more runs on the board, because nobody wanted to see something that slim get handed over to the bullpen.

Rex Hudler stopped smoking grass just long enough to pick up California's first hit in the top of the sixth, but a Tony Phillips strikeout ended whatever threat may have been posed. Only nine outs to go. But still, 1-0? Come on, lineup. Put this thing out of reach and get the party started a few innings early.

Groundout, strikeout, fly out. God. Does it really need to be this tense?

Thankfully, Randy didn't seem to be losing anything as the game rolled along. In fact, he might've been doing the complete opposite, as he fanned Tim Salmon with a blazing heater to bring us to the 7th-inning stretch. He's only around 100 pitches or so. Maybe he can finish up after all. Hey, he threw 160 against Cleveland in June, so why not? Adrenaline's only going to overpower whatever fatigue he might be feeling anyway.

With the promise of a bullpen-free potential complete game looming, the Kingdome started to feel it. The place was always energized, but now it was beginning to get more confident, and the diminishing hint of trepidation that remained only made everyone louder. Fans were screaming away their fear of a letdown.

Blowers singles. Tino reaches on a bunt when the Angels unsuccessfully try to get the runner at second. Wilson sacrifices the both of them into scoring position. Cora gets beaned. Suddenly the bases are loaded with one out, and with a speedy contact hitter at the plate in Coleman, the Angels practically have to concede a second run. The fans are shouting the seventh note of a frenzied octave, waiting for one more hit to push them to the eighth.

Coleman tags the ball to right, and for a moment, everything is quiet.

Salmon gloves it. Blowers is slow, so no one advances. With two down, the hope for a backbreaker rests on the effeminate little shoulders of Luis Sojo, who'd spoiled an earlier rally with an ill-timed double play. Standing in the box facing Langston, Sojo swings and sends a bouncer to first base. Yeah, that'll do it.

...only, wait. Somehow the ball eludes JT Snow, only one of the best defensive first basemen anyone's ever seen. If ever there were a bad time for a team named "the Angels" to have God working against them, this was it, as the ball was seemingly guided by a prayer down the line and away from Snow's outstretched glove hand. The Kingdome blew up. As Sojo's swinging bunt rolled into the corner, Blowers scored, and Martinez scored, and Cora scored, and Sojo rounded second. And rounded third. Langston was covering home on the play, but he wasn't able to control the throw, and Sojo scored on one of the most unlikely base-clearing anythings ever. As the dugout erupted and the crowd made itself deaf, Langston lay on his back staring straight up, arms folded on his chest. Two months of the Mariners getting all the good breaks and the Angels getting all the bad had just made itself two months and a day. Whatever magic inhabited that godforsaken dome was clearly still alive and kicking.

Langston was barely back to his feet when Lachemann took him out of the game. It was just as well; even though Langston hadn't really done anything wrong, by that point the game was over, and there's no reason to leave a guy out there longer than you need to in a lost cause. All that remained was watching Randy blow through six more outs before Seattle could officially start planning for its next week, and California for 1996.

The top of the eighth came and went, and the Mariners piled on with four more in the bottom half. In a game going this well, people were almost disappointed when Tony Phillips hit a lead-off homer in the ninth to spoil Randy's shutout. As Phillips completed his somber trot, though, Randy was already thinking ahead to the next hitter. Spike Owen flied out, and Eduardo Perez grounded back to the mound, setting up Tim Salmon as the final obstacle in the game.

And, for the fourth time in four at bats, Randy struck him out.

It's funny; despite everything that happened over the next six days, I always look back on this as being the happiest day of my Mariner fandom. Maybe I just couldn't get much more 'up' after the win, I dunno, but it's not every day that you get to see your favorite team complete the greatest comeback in baseball history.

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