By KIRBY ARNOLD
CHICAGO – Seeing Jay Buhner square around to bunt is about as rare as witnessing a solar eclipse.
Buhner’s job with the Seattle Mariners is to club runners home with his powerful swing, not tap them into scoring position with a 25-foot bunt.
But after John Olerud led off the sixth inning Wednesday with a single, Buhner saw third-base coach Larry Bowa flash the bunt sign.
He pushed the ball less than five feet in front of the plate, where Chicago’s Charles Johnson started a rare catcher-to-shortstop-to-first double play.
It was a curious call to begin with. Buhner had pounded a pitch from Mike Sirotka for a 399-foot home run in his previous at-bat.
And, Buhner revealed later, he wasn’t supposed to bunt.
“It was a screwup, to be honest with you,” he said. “It’s totally my fault. I saw Larry go to the bunt, then he took it off. I didn’t stay with it. It was stupid on my part, and I should have used my head.”
Buhner had one sacrifice bunt in the regular season and considers himself a good bunter, even though he’s rarely asked to do it.
“Normally, I get the bunt down. If I at least got the guy to second it wouldn’t have been so bad,” he said. “It was a pretty feeble effort. Thank goodness it didn’t come back to haunt me.”
Paul Abbott became every reporter’s Cinderella on Wednesday.
The right-hander’s victory was the first of his career in a postseason game after 10 years of injuries kept him from pitching a full season in the majors until now.
“If I didn’t think that I would come back, I would have quit a long time ago,” he said. “This was a dream. But there’s still another dream that I’d like to get to, and it’ll take a few more games to reach that.
“Injuries happen, but I always thought this could happen, too.”
As well as Abbott pitched, he might have made some blooper segments in the first inning when he fielded a dribbler by Paul Konerko that rolled halfway to the mound.
Abbott grabbed the ball, planted his foot and immediately hit the turf. From a sitting position, he made a one-hop throw to first baseman John Olerud to retire Konerko and end a first-and-third threat by the White Sox.
“I think falling down by the seat of my pants might reflect more my athletic ability than anything,” Abbott said. “I told myself ‘Just don’t panic. Throw it low and John will get it.’ “
The Mariners were livid in the third inning when Chicago’s Jose Valentin reached on what appeared to be a pitcher-to-first groundout after Valentin bunted back to Abbott.
Abbott fielded the ball and made a soft one-hop throw to Olerud as Valentin crossed the bag. Umpire Mike Reilly called him safe, Abbott leaped wildly in disgust and manager Lou Piniella raced from the dugout to confront Reilly.
“You don’t want to know what I was saying there,” Abbott said. “I hope the camera wasn’t on me.”
The call, which television replays showed was wrong, led to Chicago’s second run. Valentin stole second and went to third when catcher Dan Wilson’s throw sailed wide of the bag and into center field. Carlos Lee hit a long sacrifice fly to right that scored Valentin.
Abbott ended the inning by getting Paul Konerko on a popup that Olerud caught while leaning into the Seattle dugout.
The Mariners still haven’t decided whether left-handers John Halama or Jamie Moyer will start Saturday’s game at Safeco Field.
With the Mariners one victory from clinching the series, they may not need to worry about it.
“One of the two,” was all Piniella said before Wednesday’s game.
Moyer has struggled in his past two starts and Piniella hinted there was a problem with his shoulder. Moyer and the Mariners’ training staff say there’s no health problem.
Wednesday would have been Moyer’s turn to pitch, but the Mariners decided to start Abbott, a right-hander, against the right-handed-dominant White Sox. The strategy was to save their left-handers for Safeco Field, a more forgiving ballpark to pitchers.
Mariners leadoff hitter Rickey Henderson injured the index finger on his left hand while sliding into third base in the fifth inning, forcing him out of the game. He should be available when the series resumes Friday in Seattle, trainer Rick Griffin said.
“He just jammed it,” Griffin said. “He’ll be fine.”
Henderson didn’t leave the game until after he had made a huge difference. He walked to start the fifth, went to second on a sacrifice bunt by Mike Cameron and stole third on the play that tweaked his finger. After spending a few moments in pain, Henderson got back on the bag and scored on Alex Rodriguez’s RBI groundout.
The stolen base was Henderson’s first of the series and his ninth career Division Series steal, moving him into a first-place tie with Omar Vizquel and Kenny Lofton.
Ten years ago, Joe Oliver assumed this is how life in the big leagues would be. October would roll around every year and he would be playing postseason baseball.
A decade after Oliver won a World Series ring as a rookie with the Cincinnati Reds, he’s back in the postseason … for only the second time.
“A lot has happened in between that I never would have imagined,” said Oliver, now a 35-year-old who went from spring training invitee to one of the Mariners’ unsung heroes in 2000. He hit a solo home run in Game 1 Tuesday.
As appreciative as all the Mariners are to be here, nobody may feel the joy more than Oliver.
“You take it for granted, especially in my situation when it happened in my rookie year,” he said. “We swept Oakland (to win the Series), we were a young club and it felt like we could just do it every year.”
The Reds suffered some huge injuries, including a lacerated kidney by outfielder Eric Davis, and never were the same.
“We went from first to last,” Oliver said. “I learned really quick that nothing is guaranteed in this game.”
Whether it was the cold wind off Lake Michigan or the chill of their team’s opening-game loss, White Sox fans didn’t flock back to Comiskey Park on Wednesday.
The White Sox announced only the number tickets sold – 45,290 Tuesday and 45,383 Wednesday – but there were numerous empty seats for both games. The stadium seats 44,321.
Comiskey, the first of the major leagues’ new-wave ballparks when it was built 10 years ago, has often been criticized for its cold, concrete look. The Illinois Sports Facilities Authority hopes to change that before next season with an $8 million renovation – at no cost to taxpayers – that will add seats near both dugouts and move the bullpens to a more visible location behind the outfield fence. The bullpens now are in cavern-like areas behind the left-center and right-center field fences, out of the view of most fans and both dugouts.
Both teams flew to Seattle after Wednesday’s game and will work out at Safeco Field this afternoon. The workouts aren’t open to the public.
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