ARLINGTON, Texas - For Mariner skipper Lou Piniella, the toughest part of today's one-game playoff for the American League West championship was sitting it out.
The last time there was an AL playoff game, Oct. 3, 1978, Piniella was part of a Yankee team that beat the Boston Red Sox on a sunny afternoon at Fenway Park, and a major part of New York's 5-3 win itself.
"I look back on that day as the most fun game I ever played in in my life," said Pinella after the Rangers beat the Mariners 9-3 yesterday to set up the single-game playoff. "I'd like nothing better than to play in this one, but I'm too damn old."
The parallels between Boston's collapse and late recovery to tie the Yankees on the final Sunday of the regular season, and the Angel-Mariner saga this month are amazing.
Boston blew a lead that had ballooned to 10 games in July (14 over New York), then came back from 4 1/2 games back with 14 to play. The Red Sox had to win 12 of the last 14, including the final eight.
Similarly, California dropped a lead that grew to 11 games in early August (13 over Seattle) and came back from three games back with five to play, winning all five.
Today's playoff determined whether Seattle's season was deja do or deja disaster.
"We're ready, we'll be fine," Piniella said. "What could be more fitting than to close this season out in front of the fans that supported us with so much spirit? We're going back to the
Thunderdome, the Horrordome."
Piniella has Randy Johnson (17-2), his latter-day Ron Guidry, to go against Mark Langston. Guidry was 25-3 in '78, the left-handed bulwark of those superb New York teams.
"This is the day we were thinking of back in 1989," Seattle General Manager Woody Woodward said, "when we traded Langston for Johnson (and Brian Holman and Gene Harris)."
Three weeks ago, the Mariners had penciled in Johnson to open tomorrow's AL divisional series. The fact that he was to start today, on three days' rest, is just the first change of plan necessitated by the weekend setbacks.
Should the Mariners get beyond today's playoff, just the third ever in the AL and eighth in major-league history, subsequent pitching is scrambled. Chris Bosio would start the first game in New York tomorrow, also on three days' rest, with Andy Benes coming back for the Wednesday game.
"Benes threw only 30-odd (35) pitches Saturday, little more than if he'd thrown on the sidelines between starts," Piniella said. "He should be ready."
It is too simplistic to say the Mariners collapsed into the deadlock that was to be unlocked today. They did drop the last two games when starters Benes and Tim Belcher fed Mickey Tettleton identical gopher balls for first-inning, three-run homers.
However, Seattle went 9-3 over the stretch drive that Piniella labeled "the dirty dozen."
Seattle needed help and didn't get it.
It didn't get it from Toronto, which found it impossible to play baseball from the prone position. The Blue Jays turned turkey, dropping seven games to the Yankees as New York locked up the wild-card slot.
It didn't get it from Oakland, which booted a four-game series to California. With Rickey Henderson sitting out to keep his average at .301, Tony La Russa started several players and pitchers (John Wasdin?) their families might not recognize at a reunion.
"We could have used help," Piniella said. "We didn't get it. Now we'll be doing our own job."
The manager said the 9-3 finish of his club exceeded his expectations. "When we left Chicago to go home for eight games and then to Texas for these last four, Woody (Woodward) said on the plane home that 8-4 would do it," Piniella said. "Some team would have to get hot to beat us in the wild card. Well, New York went 11-1 and the Angels relaxed when they fell behind us in the division and came on strong, too."
Today, Seattle needed Vince Coleman to get on base more than he did in the Saturday-Sunday setbacks - twice in 10 times up. It needed Ken Griffey Jr. and Jay Buhner to better their twin 1 for 8s over the past two days, even though Buhner's lone hit was his 40th home run yesterday, and it needed Tino Martinez to improve his 2 for 7.
It also needed a big game from Johnson, who said two months ago, "If it means pitching for the pennant, I want to be in there."
Before yesterday's game, the big left-hander poked his head into Piniella's office and said, "I can give you a couple of innings today, if you need."
Said Piniella, "I can tell you I appreciate that as a manager, and Randy's teammates appreciate that attitude from him, too. . . . I'm glad we didn't have to take Randy up on his offer, because we're going to need him to give us more than an inning or two (today). I'm glad he's going for us. What better pitcher would you want out there?"
If Johnson, who was 3-0 with a 3.22 earned-run average in five earlier starts on three days' rest, needed relief today, the Mariners also must have more from Jeff Nelson and Lee Guetterman than they got yesterday. Nelson, in particular, reverted to his old days instead of shutting the door on the Rangers.
Nelson gave up an RBI double to light-hitting Benji Gil and two more runs in the fifth to make it 7-1 before Seattle's Mike Blowers hit a two-run homer in the sixth. Then Guetterman came in and allowed the Rangers to get those runs back.
So Seattle wound up in a tie with California at 78-66 - and another lost opportunity.
Piniella refused to look back at what might have been.
"You can drive yourself crazy with that," he said. "Look at all the comebacks we've had. Our team just comes to play, and I have all the confidence in it playing one game for the division. It's still in our hands."
-------------------------------------------------------. . Playoff games
Today's game between Seattle and California will be only the eighth playoff in major-league history, and the first in 15 years: . National League. . 1946 St. Louis 4, Brooklyn 2.
St. Louis 8, Brooklyn 4. . 1951 N.Y. Giants 3, Brooklyn 1.
Brooklyn 10, N.Y. Giants 0.
N.Y. Giants 5, Brooklyn 4. . 1959 Los Angeles 3, Braves 2.
Los Angeles 6, Braves 5. . 1962 San Francisco 8, Los Angeles 0.
Los Angeles 8, San Francisco 7.
San Francisco 5, Los Angeles 4. . 1980 Houston 7, Los Angeles 1. .
. American League. . 1948 Cleveland 8, Boston 3. . 1978 N.Y. Yankees 5, Boston 4. . 1995 Seattle vs. California. .
# NL playoffs before 1969 were best-of-three.