When Seattle Manager Lou Piniella announced his pitching rotation for the American League championship series, it seemed more like a Game 1 concession speech.
Yes, Piniella had to rest his weary starters, but Bob Wolcott, a 22-year-old rookie who had pitched seven major league games for Seattle, against Cleveland ace Dennis Martinez, 40? Surely, the Mariners didn't have a chance.
But as 57,065 in the Kingdome saw again Tuesday night, anything can happen in Seattle's Season of the Supernatural.
Wolcott staged a Houdini-like escape of a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the first inning and led the Mariners to a 3-2 victory in the American League championship series opener.
Seattle's Tim Belcher will face Cleveland's Orel Hershiser today in what has suddenly become a must-win Game 2 for the favored Indians.
"It's something we have to do," Cleveland Manager Mike Hargrove said. "We can't come out of here 0-2 with Randy Johnson pitching [for Seattle] Friday night."
Applying the pressure for the Mariners Tuesday was Mike Blowers, who hit a two-run home run in the second inning, former Angel castoff Luis Sojo, who broke a 2-2 tie with an RBI double in the seventh, and Norm Charlton, who set down the heart of the Indian lineup in order in the ninth for the save.
But it was Wolcott, who spent most of this season in the minor leagues and was added to the playoff roster Monday, who provided the latest Mariner miracle.
The right-hander gave up only eight hits in seven innings, walked five and struck out two. The Indians left 12 on base--seven in the first three innings--and were only two for 11 with runners in scoring position. Speedy leadoff batter Kenny Lofton reached base five times and didn't score.
"Even in this clubhouse, you can't expect a rookie who is 22 and has no postseason experience to throw the kind of game he did, and to show the kind of composure he did," Charlton said. "You can hope for it. But no way could you expect it."
The Mariners thrilled their fans with late-inning heroics in the division series against the New York Yankees, but Tuesday's game was won in the first inning.
A wild Wolcott needed a compass to find the strike zone, throwing balls on 12 of his first 13 pitches, walking the bases loaded and bringing Piniella to the mound.
"He said I should try to relax," Wolcott said, "and that even if we got beat, 11-0, it would still be a great off-season. I laughed."
The sight of Indian cleanup hitter Albert Belle, who led the major leagues with 50 home runs, wiped the smirk off Wolcott's face. Mariner teammates behind him began to squirm.
"I knew all hell could break loose with one swing of the bat," right fielder Jay Buhner said.
But Belle seemed to restore some of Wolcott's confidence by swinging and missing at the first pitch and, eventually, striking out. Eddie Murray popped to third on the first pitch and Jim Thome smashed a one-hopper up the middle, but Seattle second baseman Joey Cora made a diving, backhand stop and, from his knees, threw Thome out to end the inning.
Amid a thunderous ovation, Wolcott walked to the Mariner dugout shaking his head, amazed that he had escaped without giving up a run.
"I realized how lucky I was," Wolcott said. "It's rare to get out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam. Someone was definitely looking down on me tonight."
Wolcott ran into more trouble in the second when Paul Sorrento doubled with one out and Lofton walked with two outs, but Omar Vizquel, the former Seattle infielder, grounded to first to end the threat.
Blowers, who batted .167 in the division series, gave the Mariners a 2-0 lead in the second when he followed Buhner's walk with a two-run homer to center off Martinez, who was making his first ALCS start since 1979 when he was a member of the Baltimore Orioles.
But Cleveland cut into the lead in the third when Carlos Baerga singled, Belle walked and Thome singled Baerga home. Manny Ramirez lined a single to center, snapping an 0-for-13 postseason drought, but he hit the ball so hard that Belle had to stop at third.
Sorrento then chopped a grounder up the middle, but Seattle shortstop Luis Sojo fielded the ball after a high bounce, stepped on second and threw to first for an inning-ending double play.
"Cora's play was great, and Sojo's play really gave me a lift," Wolcott said.
With so many hits and baserunners in the first three innings, Cleveland hitters seemed to develop an attitude that they were going to hammer Wolcott eventually, but they never got around to doing it.
Wolcott found his groove in the fourth inning and began getting ahead on batters with his tailing fastball, sinker, slider and changeup. But he grooved a fastball to Belle in the seventh, and it wound up in the center-field bleachers for a game-tying home run.
But Buhner doubled with one out in the bottom of the seventh, Blowers reached on an error and Sojo doubled off the wall in left-center for a 3-2 Mariner lead.
Relievers Jeff Nelson and Charlton then shut the door in the eighth and ninth.
"Everyone thought they were going to whip us because we had a rookie pitcher out there," Buhner said. "But we've got this crystal ball, you see, and we can figure out what's going to happen."