By KIRBY ARNOLD
SEATTLE – How good is Lou Piniella?
In Mike Cameron’s eyes, he can stand alongside the greats of human existence.
“He’s like my man Michelangelo. Or Aristotle,” the Seattle Mariners’ center fielder said. “He is an artist.”
OK, so what if Cameron is mixing his artists with his philosophers. We get the point.
After a 162-game regular season and three impressive playoff victories, Piniella is being hailed as one of baseball’s best tacticians.
When the Mariners beat the White Sox on Friday with a safety squeeze bunt called by Piniella, it capped a week when almost every move he made was the right one.
Last Sunday, in the live-or-die regular season finale at Anaheim, he sent Raul Ibanez into the game in the middle innings. Ibanez, used mostly this year as a defensive replacement, delivered a two-run double that clinched the victory that put the M’s in the playoffs.
On Tuesday in Chicago, Piniella didn’t hesitate and pulled a fast-fading Freddy Garcia in the fourth inning. He put the game in the hands of his bullpen, starting with Brett Tomko’s bases-loaded, one-out lockdown of the White Sox in Game 1. The relievers went on to pitch 11 2/3 innings in the series and never allowed a run.
In the decisive 10th inning Tuesday, Piniella called time out and pulled Cameron off first for some base-running advice.
His message? Cameron can reveal it now.
“Lou noticed how their catcher was setting up on a pitchout,” Cameron said. “If he sets up outside, it’s a pitchout. If he doesn’t, I steal the bag.”
Cameron got the steal and the Mariners stole a victory when Edgar Martinez and John Olerud hit back-to-back home runs.
Piniella, intensely loyal to his players, kept his faith in relief pitcher Jose Mesa all season. Twice he used Mesa with the White Sox threatening in the late innings. Twice Mesa blew them away.
Not afraid to make the tough call, Piniella benched left-hander Jamie Moyer, the Mariners’ opening-night starting pitcher. He did it partly because Moyer has been ineffective lately and partly because the White Sox feast on left-handed pitching.
“Lou is not concerned about what people are going to say,” Mariners bench coach John McLaren said. “He’ll do what he thinks is right”
The Mariners swept the series in three games, and Piniella was hailed in the national media as a genius.
“They out-hit us, they out-played us and they out-managed us,” White Sox manager Jerry Manuel said. “They deserved to win the series.”
“Lou is pushing all the right buttons,” relief pitcher Arthur Rhodes said. “I hope he keeps on pushing them.”
And now, the man who some fans and media were ready to drum out of town a year ago has become a genius.
When Safeco Field was built, it may have resurrected Piniella.
In the Kingdome, he was never able to show his ability as a manger, said McLaren.
Offensive strategy? Fans would go weeks between games with bunts, steals or hit-and-runs. Piniella simply waited for the three-run home run.
Even last year, after the Mariners moved to Safeco, they were a big-bopper club that seemed out of place in a small-ball setting. Their long fly balls dropped at the warning track, not in the seats.
All the while, Piniella groused about his opponents’ athleticism when teams with speed ran circles around the Mariners. He knew, McLaren said, the club had to change its style in order to win.
After Pat Gillick became general manager last fall, the Mariners began a facelift into a team that Piniella knew could win.
They granted Ken Griffey Jr.’s wish and traded him to Cincinnati, getting in return a center fielder (Cameron) who could hit, run, field and create havoc, plus a young pitcher (Tomko) with a live arm and a bulldog mentality.
The Mariners added John Olerud and Stan Javier, two players who can spray the ball to all corners of the big ballpark. They picked up versatile Mark McLemore, a speedster who became the everyday second baseman with spectacular results. And they added Rhodes and Kazuhiro Sasaki to the bullpen, moves that made everyone around them better.
“This was the vision Lou had when we moved over here,” McLaren said. “He knew we’d be a much better team all the way around.”
As the weeks went by and this new band of Mariners pushed their way into first place in the American League West, the rest of the country seemed surprised. How can this team, which lost Randy Johnson and Ken Griffey Jr. in consecutive years, compete for a championship?
It’s that vision, McLaren says.
“Lou doesn’t get the credit he deserves,:” he said. “Lou is one of the better managers in baseball. He’s not concerned about what people are going to say. He’ll do what he thinks is right.”
It has gotten the Mariners into the American League Championship Series for the second time in their history. It wouldn’t surprise McLaren if Piniella’s imprint in the next round leads to a World Series appearance.
“He’s so focused right now,” McLaren said. “He’s at his best right.”
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