Wild card will do

  • LARRY LaRUE / The News Tribune
  • Sunday, October 1, 2000 9:00pm
  • Sports

Mariners win playoff spot in season finale

By LARRY LaRUE

The News Tribune

ANAHEIM, Calif. — The manager walked up the tunnel behind the dugout, found a telephone and called his wife — then started crying.

Alex Rodriguez, soaked in champagne, slipped quietly away into the Seattle trainers room, sat down and wept.

No, the Mariners’ 91st win of the season, in the last regular season game of 2000, was not just another day at the ballpark. A 5-2 victory over the Anaheim Angels pushed Seattle into the third postseason in franchise history — and brought out a flood of emotion.

"We’ve been holding it in for a long time," Piniella said. "These guys earned this."

And then he walked into a Mariners clubhouse that had been celebrating for 25 minutes, and was assaulted by players pouring beer, champagne and even two ice buckets over his head.

It was a perfect ending to a draining season — a game which the Mariners trailed into the fifth inning, a game they had to win to avoid one-game playoff with the Cleveland Indians today.

"We’ve just played two playoff games," said Rodriguez, whose 41st home run of the season produced Seattle’s first run Sunday. "We had to win these last two games and we did.

"I’ve played on teams with more talent, I’ve never played on a team with more heart."

Mike Cameron’s RBI double in the fifth inning tied the game, David Bell’s 11th home run — and second in two days — gave the Mariners their first lead in the seventh inning.

"It’s the biggest game I’ve ever played in," Bell said. "So I guess it would have to be my biggest hit."

Cameron didn’t need to guess.

"I’ve been playing baseball since I was about two-years-old," he said.

"This is the best feeling I’ve ever had in the game. Look, I’m getting goose bumps talking about it. We got to baseball’s Mecca today — we’re in the playoffs."

Few of the Mariners were with the team in 1995, when they won the first division title in franchise history. Not many were Mariners in ‘97, when Seattle won its second.

And now, the team has its first wild card berth.

"Hey, the Florida Marlins won the World Series as wild cards," Jay Buhner said. "Why can’t we be the Cinderella story of 2000?"

The Mariners won the final game of their season with the combination they’d used in most of their wins, tenacious pitching, just enough offense and solid defense. Aaron Sele pitched into the sixth inning, Arthur Rhodes took it into the eighth inning and closer Kazuhiro Sasaki earned his 37th save by recording the final five outs of the game.

Team CEO Howard Lincoln, drenched by post-game vintages, raved about Seattle’s rookie closer.

"We signed him just for this, we leaned on him all season and he delivered," Lincoln said. "So many of our guys delivered this year. It’s been a wonderful season."

Asked to put a wild card spot in perspective, A-Rod had no trouble doing so.

"We didn’t lose, Oakland won," he said. "We played great baseball this month — we won 19 games in September, and we lost a little ground. The deserved the division. We deserved the wild card.

"Maybe down the line, we’ll meet again."

What happens now is the Mariners open their playoff series in Chicago at 1 p.m. (PST) on Tuesday, with Freddy Garcia getting the start. And after that?

"I don’t know what Lou’s going to do, but with a mostly right-handed lineup in Chicago, we’ll have Garcia, Abbott and Sele ready for the first three games," general manager Pat Gillick said. "I don’t know what Jamie Moyer’s status is, and I haven’t talked to Lou, but I like the way we match up with Chicago.

"I’m proud of this team. If I have one regret this season, it’s that (Ken Griffey) Jr. isn’t here to share this," Gillick said. "He was part of it in ‘95 and ‘97, and I know he’d have wanted to be part of this."

OK.

It was a not-so-subtle reminder that this is a team that Griffey wouldn’t play for, a team from which he demanded a trade last winter. Someone asked Rodriguez how the Mariners had managed to get to the postseason two years after losing Randy Johnson and in the same year they traded Griffey.

"Heart," he said. "Heart and a word I don’t know if you can use — balls. This team has both."

Tired, soaked and happy, Piniella took a sip of champagne in his office and listened as the sound of a clubhouse celebration filtered in.

"These kids play, don’t they?" he said. "Every time I asked, they gave me everything they had. I told them last week, we had six games left and we needed to win four to get in. They went 4-2. Now we keep playing. There are 22 teams that are done for the year, and we’re one of eight that keep playing.

"These players deserve their celebration. Me? I wanted to share this with my wife, and I did. This is special for all of us."

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