The Seattle Mariners slid into the 1995 American League Championship series exhausted. They had staged an incredible comeback over the New York Yankees to win the Division Series in five games. Only two of the five games in that series had finished in under four hours, and the series came on the tail of another incredible comeback to win the American League West Division and earn the team’s first postseason appearance.
The Mariners leaned on ace starter Randy Johnson in the final game of the division series, when he made a relief appearance and pitched into the eleventh inning to send the Yankees home. Two days later, he wasn’t available to start Game 1 of the ALCS against Cleveland. Bob Wolcott, a rookie from Medford, OR, answered the call and only allowed Cleveland to plate two runs in his first (and only) postseason appearance. In Game 2, Tim Belcher started for the Mariners and the Cleveland offense broke through, handing the Mariners their first loss at home in the postseason.
On Friday October 13th, the series shifted to Cleveland for three games. Finally, Randy Johnson would pitch. The clear American League Cy Young Award winner was the Story going into Game 3. It was more than the strikeouts, more than his hard fastball and slider. As the intro to the NBC broadcast pointed out, it was his height, hair, and intensity that combined to take a pitcher from being good into being unforgettable. The only concern about him in the ALCS was that he was worn down by pitching so often. He had thrown a complete game to beat the Angels on a Tuesday, pitched seven innings against the Yankees that Friday, and three innings on Sunday. Starting again on Friday, it was the first time he had had four days of rest between appearances since the end of the regular season. The Cleveland papers sung a common refrain: to get to the World Series, Cleveland would have to win against Johnson.
Johnson’s pitching opponent in Game 3 was Charles Nagy. Nagy was nowhere near Johnson’s level, but he was still a good pitcher. He had faced the Mariners three times in 1995 and won two of those games. Nagy embraced his underdog role in the game, laughing when a reporter asked what it was like to not be the marquee pitcher. He shrugged off the matchup, saying, “You don’t have to face Randy Johnson; you have to face the batters.”
The Mariners as a team were seen as a team of destiny, from overcoming a 13-game deficit and winning the AL West to a comeback series victory over the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs. But Cleveland was embracing a destiny of its own. 1995 was the first year Cleveland had seen the postseason since they lost the 1954 World Series. This was their second season playing in their new ballpark, Jacobs Field. The stadium was packed with cheering fans on a nightly basis. They won 100 games in the strike-shortened 1995 season, leading their fans to declare the season Major League III, after the first two movies featuring the team.
This shared sense of destiny after decades of postseason ineptitude did not endear Mariners fans to Cleveland fans. Newspaper columns in Ohio mocked the enthusiastic cheering, nearly all of them suggesting Seattlites should lay off the lattes. Cleveland closer Jose Mesa, a future Mariner himself, was happy to bring the ALCS back home. “At least we know our fans will cheer when they’re supposed to cheer. The fans in Seattle cheer every time the pitcher has two strikes on one of our hitters. It doesn’t matter what inning it is. I think they’re crazy.”
Cleveland second baseman Carlos Baerga went so far as to wear earplugs during the first four innings of Game 1 at the Kingdome. He took them out and scoffed to reporters, “It wasn’t as loud as I thought it would be.”
Cleveland fans mocked the Refuse to Lose slogan for the Mariners’ 1995 playoff run. The stadium was littered with fans holding signs reading, “Refuse This.” Cleveland fans had plenty of reason for optimism. Their team had gone 54-18 at home in 1995 and was considered the best team in baseball.
The Mariners had grievances of their own. Before the game, they filed a complaint with the American League over a camera Cleveland had mounted out in center field. Manager Lou Piniella heard through the baseball rumor mill that the tape from the camera recorded in the Cleveland clubhouse and gave them the capacity to steal signs. Naturally, Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove denied any cheating and asserted that the camera was used for “training purposes.” However, Cleveland slugger Albert Belle threw a fit in the clubhouse after learning the camera would be covered during the game until the league could investigate. (Atlanta accused Cleveland of the same thing during the 1995 World Series, as did the Boston Red Sox in 1999.)
The game got off to a rocky start for Nagy against the Mariners. With one out, he nailed Joey Cora in the lower back with a fastball. Then, he took Ken Griffey Jr. to an 0-2 count. Mocking Seattle, the fans in Cleveland stood and sarcastically cheered Nagy. Bob Costas and Bob Uecker in the broadcast booth for NBC made note of the derision Cleveland felt toward Seattle fans. Griffey responded by hitting the next pitch for a single to centerfield.
Unfortunately, the Martinez duo of Edgar and Tino popped out and grounded out to end the inning. The Martinez’s were affectionately known as Double Martinez Time in 1995, an offensive combination in the middle of the lineup that had spurred the Mariner’s run that season. In the ALCS, they struggled. Going into Game 3 they were both hitless. Over the course of the entire series, they would combine for 5 hits in 45 at bats (they also had a combined 5 walks). Their struggles were an early sign that the Mariners magic machine was running out of gas.
In the bottom of the inning, Randy Johnson strode out to the mound. He was the first left-handed pitcher Cleveland had faced in the postseason, so it was the first game their lineup was missing Jim Thome and Paul Sorrento. The only left-handed hitter brave enough to face the Big Unit was Kenny Lofton, the leadoff hitter who would give Seattle fits during the series. Speed and peskiness were his weapons of choice.
After taking Lofton 0-2, Johnson backed him off the plate then followed with a slider that didn’t quite stay over the plate. Lofton got a little piece of the next pitch and hit a dribbler out in front of home plate. Catcher Dan Wilson popped out and threw down to first to barely get Lofton. Lofton thought he was safe, but even the replay technology of 1995 showed he was out by a smidgen. Johnson set down the next two Cleveland batters with far less trouble than Lofton gave him.
Leading off for the Mariners in the second inning against Charles Nagy was right fielder Jay Buhner. Buhner wasn’t a particularly high percentage hitter and he was known to strike out quite a bit. He made up for the strikeouts by walking and hitting home runs, and he carried the reputation of an excellent defensive right fielder. On a 2-2 pitch, Nagy hung a high curveball over the inside part of the plate. Buhner turned on it and sent the ball flying over the left field wall.
The Mariners had struck first. They may not have been heralded as the best team in baseball, but a hanging curveball was a mistake the Mariners wouldn’t let an opposing pitcher forget.
“I hate to overstate, but sometimes this is enough for Randy Johnson,” Costas said on the broadcast after Buhner finished circling the bases. “I was gonna say the same thing, Bob, you’re absolutely right,” Uecker agreed.
Again in the third inning, the Mariners scored a run. With two outs, Ken Griffey Jr. singled to reach base. With Edgar Martinez at the plate, Griffey stole second and advanced to third on a throwing error by Cleveland catcher Sandy Alomar. Edgar Martinez hit a ground ball but reached on an error by third baseman Alvaro Espinoza. Griffey scored. Then, with a 1-1 count on Tino Martinez, Edgar tried to steal second. He was caught to end the inning, but the Mariners were up 2-0 over Cleveland. With Randy on the mound it could be enough.
In the bottom of the 4th inning, Kenny Lofton led off with a triple and scored on a sacrifice fly. Baerga followed with a single and it looked like the Cleveland offense was about to come alive. But Johnson shut them down. The score stood at 2-1, Mariners. It could still be enough.
The teams did not score again until the bottom of the eighth inning. With one away, Espinoza stepped in to face Johnson. Espinoza was making his first postseason start for Cleveland, filling in for the left-handed hitting Jim Thome. The best left-handed hitters in the 1990s were not just statistically unwilling to face Johnson, they were downright scared to face him. Thome said after Cleveland’s division series win over the Boston Red Sox that he would rather face the Yankees than face the Mariners and Randy Johnson.
It must have been the classic good-news-bad-news for Espinoza. A playoff game start is something every baseball player wants. A start against Randy Johnson probably isn’t as high on the baseball bucket list. Nonetheless, here was Espinoza. After taking a pitch for a ball, Costas begins talking on the broadcast about how the Mariners will guarantee themselves one more home game at the Kingdome if they hold onto the lead. On the next pitch, Espinoza hits a routine fly ball to deep right field.
The camera switches from the home plate view to Jay Buhner in right field. He is trotting backwards, looking ready to snag a fly ball, like he has done thousands of times in his career. Suddenly, Buhner tries to turn and lunges backward at the ball, as it bounces onto the warning track.
Buhner had misjudged how far the ball would carry and had gone into his backpedal far too soon. Espinoza believed it would be caught and barely jogged to first base. He made it into second and was replaced by pinch runner Wayne Kirby.
The pesky Lofton was next up. Johnson had brushed him back off the plate in each of his previous at bats. Uecker commented that Lofton was having a tough time staying in there, but Lofton got lucky on a slider that didn’t break as sharply as it should have, and a defensive swing sent it into left field just beyond the reach of a diving try by Mariners third baseman Mike Blowers. Kirby scored from second and the game was tied. Lofton stole second and the next batter, Vizquel, tried to bunt for a hit and popped it up to Wilson. With two outs, Johnson induced a groundout from Baerga to end the threat. All the while, the broadcast continually cut to Buhner in the outfield, clearing angry with himself, clearly smoldering and ready for redemption.
He got his shot in the top of the ninth inning against Cleveland closer Jose Mesa. With one out and one on base, Buhner swung at the first pitch. He swung hard. He connected and hit it right up the middle. Right into Mesa’s glove for a double play to end the inning.
Having thrown 101 pitches through eight innings, Randy Johnson’s night was over. First, he got to leave the game so the Cleveland crowd could cheer for him. Manager Lou Piniella had been trying to call down to the bullpen to get closer Norm Charlton up and throwing, but no one in the bullpen could hear the phone ringing. So, Piniella sent Johnson out to throw a few warmup pitches and buy Charlton some time, then made the change right before the inning was set to begin.
The Cleveland team was ecstatic to have Johnson out of the game. Several players came out on the top steps of the dugout, whooping, cheering, and applauding. Mariners shortstop Luis Sojo said after the game, “I’ve never seen that before. It was like they had no respect for the rest of us. They thought they’d beaten us.” Third baseman Mike Blowers added “If they want to make that mistake, and their fans want to make that kind of mistake, good for them.”
The Cleveland fans were also excited and erupted in cheers. While Charlton made his way in, the broadcast scanned the crowd and showed a number of fan signs:
Charlton bounced a breaking ball off of Belle’s foot to begin the inning. It wasn’t a great start to the bottom of the ninth inning in a tied playoff game, but Charlton had been nearly untouchable for the Mariners in the late innings of 1995. He was acquired to take over as the regular closer after Bobby Ayala struggled to finish games. Here, he showed he could overcome a mistake. Charlton and the Mariners escaped the ninth inning without allowing the winning run to cross the plate.
Game 3 of the ALCS went to extra innings. Cleveland must have been feeling pretty confident at this point. They had been the kings of late inning comebacks, having earned 27 of their 100 wins in the final at bat. In 14 extra inning games that year, they had never lost.
In the top of the 10th inning the Mariners managed just a single from Luis Sojo against Julian Tavarez. In the bottom of the 10th inning, Charlton retired Cleveland in order. Joey Cora led off the top of the 11th with a single. Paul Assenmacher came into the game to face Griffey and did his LOOGY duty by getting Griffey to fly out. Eric Plunk came in to face the rest of the Mariners lineup. Edgar popped up a pitch for the second out. With Tino at the plate, Cora stole second and first base was open with Buhner on deck.
Cleveland manager Hargrove explained his thinking after the game, “You’ve got a left-handed hitter with 31 homers (Tino) and a right-hander (Buhner) with 40, and a 3-and-1 count with a runner on second. To me, that’s no decision. This game is built on percentages. Put the left-hander on and go with the odds.”
Tino was intentionally walked and Buhner came up to the plate with one thought. “I didn’t want to be sitting around all winter thinking about what I’d done,” he said of his error that gave Cleveland the tie in the 8th inning. He swung at the second pitch he saw from Plunk.
As soon as it left his bat, he gave a little hop as he began his run around the bases. The ball soared out over the right-center field fence, driving in Cora and Tino:
With Buhner’s redemptive 3-run home run the Mariners led the game 5-2. Charlton came out again to pitch his third inning of work, hoping to close out the win. Hoping to assure the Mariners of one more game at home in the Kingdome. Down Cleveland went, 1-2-3 in the bottom of the 11th.
The Mariners led the 1995 American League Championship Series 2 games to 1. They were two wins away from the World Series. It was as close as they would ever come.
Friday the 13th in Cleveland, the Mariners won the last game of the magical 1995 season.
Cleveland won the next two games and the series returned to Seattle with Cleveland leading the series 3 games to 2. On October 17th, Cleveland finally beat Randy Johnson and advanced to the World Series.
Jay Buhner made the final out of the final game for the Mariners in 1995. He took off his batting gloves, slowly walking back to the dugout, watching Cleveland celebrate.
Even before the Mariners won the west, before Griffey slid into home on Edgar Martinez’s double against the Yankees, before we had any idea of the magic we would experience in September and October 1995, Jay Buhner had told us to believe. He had made us believe because he believed.
Even though the ride had to end, Game 3 was a beautiful tribute to a player who never stopped playing hard, who never stopped believing.
It’s fitting that the last night of magic belonged to him.