SEATTLE -- It began as perhaps the least compelling of the four divisional playoff series. The Seattle Mariners had the worst record of any American League team in the postseason and the New York Yankees won a wild-card berth even though they were out of division contention by early August.
Instead, it has turned out to be the most competitive -- and most exciting. The Seattle Mariners rallied from an early five-run deficit last night and scored a heart-stopping 11-8 victory after 1995 American League batting champion Edgar Martinez hit a tie-breaking grand slam in the bottom of the eighth inning of Game 4 at the Kingdome.
Martinez almost single-handedly carried the Mariners into a decisive Game 5 showdown with a two-homer, seven-RBI performance that left the Yankees shellshocked and suddenly on the brink of elimination in a series they appeared to have well in hand just three days ago.
"He's a great hitter," said Yankees manager Buck Showalter. "We shouldn't feel singled out. He's one of the great hitters in our league."
Now it will be up to late-season hired guns David Cone and Andy Benes tonight to determine who will play the Cleveland Indians in the AL Championship Series.
Clearly, all the momentum has shifted to the Mariners, who pushed the sellout crowd of 57,180 into the emotional stratosphere with their five-run rally in the eighth. That put them within a victory of an unlikely three-game home sweep, but it wouldn't have been possible without Martinez's early-inning heroics and a strong middle relief performance by Jeff Nelson (Catonsville).
Martinez hit a three-run homer after the Mariners had fallen behind by five in the third inning and Nelson pitched four scoreless innings of relief while his team fought back to take the lead. He might have gotten his first postseason victory if closer Norm Charlton had not brought the tying run home with a wild pitch in the top of the eighth, but no one was complaining after the Mariners scored five times off Yankees closer John Wetteland and Steve Howe to build a seemingly insurmountable lead.
"Jeff's the one that is responsible," said Mariners manager Lou Piniella.
"He gave us a chance to come back. Without him, they keep adding runs and we don't have the chance to come back."
The suspense never lifted, not even when Martinez lined the ball over the center-field fence in the eighth. Not even when Jay Buhner hit a bases-empty home run to pad the lead one out later. The Yankees fought back to bring the tying run to the plate in the ninth and Bernie Williams came close to causing a Kingdome cardiac arrest with a shot to the wall in center for the final out.
The whole series has been a showcase for Martinez, who has nine hits in 15 at-bats through the first four games. If you include the one-game playoff Monday against the Angels, he has 12 hits in 19 at-bats under postseason pressure. And the Yankees should feel singled out -- despite Showalter's comments to the contrary. Since the start of the regular season, he's hitting .443 against the Yankees with nine home runs and 28 RBI in 61 at-bats.
"All you can do is try to keep him in the ballpark and hope he lines it at somebody," Showalter said.
He may be the best-kept secret in the major leagues, a two-time batting champion playing in the shadow of superstar Ken Griffey, but Martinez doesn't seem to mind. He accepts his accolades quietly, and only briefly threw his fists up in triumph when his game-breaking shot cleared the fence.
"It feels great that we were able to score four runs," he said.
"I just try to hide my emotions. I feel very excited about the game, but I'm more excited that we have the chance to play again tomorrow."
It had also been a showcase series for veteran Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly, who had four hits and two RBIs last night and is batting .474 for the series, but it turned bittersweet when he made two poor defensive plays to give comfort to the rebounding Mariners. His wild throw in the fifth brought home an important run and he was unable to get an out on a playable bunt by Seattle second baseman Joey Cora in the five-run eighth.
The Mariners had their lowlights, too.
Right-hander Chris Bosio was supposed to buy enough time for them to attack less experienced Scott Kamieniecki in the early innings, but he gave up five runs in two-plus innings to put Seattle at a very significant disadvantage.
Seattle will have more to overcome tonight. Shortstop Luis Sojo was spiked on the right wrist trying to break up a double play in the eighth and may not be available tonight.
The Mariners also could be at a disadvantage in the bullpen, after needing seven innings of relief last night.
Piniella said after the game that everyone except Nelson would be available -- including Bosio and pitching ace Randy Johnson.
Mariners vs. Yankees
Last night: Mariners, 11-8
Series: Tied, 2-2
Game 5: Tonight, 7:07, Kingdome, Seattle
Starters: Yankees' David Cone (19-8, 3.60) vs. Mariners' Andy Benes (7-2, 5.82)
Last night: Braves, 10-4
Series: Braves win, 3-1
NL championship series:
Braves vs. Reds
9- Game 1: Tuesday, at Cincinnati, 8:07 p.m.