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Bill or Bob, it's magic by any name


SEATTLE -- Well, now we know: There are no limits to the magic the Seattle Mariners are capable of conjuring in this improbable season.

After Bill Wolcott, anything is possible.

Excuse me. Make that Bob Wolcott.

It's Bob, not Bill.

As if anyone out there would know the difference besides Wolcott's family and baseball fans in Wilmington, N.C., where Wolcott spent most of the 1995 season pitching for a Double-A minor-league team called the Port City Roosters.

Last night, he took a small step up in class from the Roosters: He started Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against the fearsome Cleveland Indians. Hello.

It was a horrifying mismatch on paper, a 22-year-old rookie with three major-league wins facing a team that compiled the league's highest batting average since 1936. The Indians' starter? Their ace, Dennis Martinez, who has a son just two years younger than Wolcott.

Rooster road kill in the making.

But these are the Mariners who had 43 comeback wins during the regular season, came from 13 games back to win the AL West and came from two games down to beat the Yankees in their divisional series. They have turned the impossible into the routine.

So what happened? Wolcott beat the Indians, of course. He really did.

But you had to see it to believe it. All those other Mariners comebacks were just the warmup act for this.

From now on, when something unthinkable happens in baseball, we can call it a Wolcott.

Bob or Bill.

The poor kid walked the bases loaded in the top of the first, throwing one strike in his first 13 pitches. He gave up eight hits and walked five before he left, allowing baserunners to crawl all over his back for seven harrowing innings.

But somehow, some way, he allowed just two runs and left with a one-run lead that the Mariners' bullpen preserved.

Roger Clemens couldn't beat the Indians. Tim Wakefield couldn't beat the Indians.

Bob Wolcott did.

This was the baseball version of Buster Douglas and Mike Tyson. Wolcott pitched in the Single-A California League last year. He wasn't on the Mariners' 40-man roster over the winter and wasn't invited to the club's major-league camp this spring. He was a Rooster for most of 1995 until the Mariners called him up late in the season, desperately seeking an arm for the pennant drive.

Wolcott won three games but didn't embarrass anyone, allowing 43 hits in 36 innings with a 4.32 ERA. The Orioles creamed him here on Aug. 23, and the Orioles didn't cream anyone this year.

The Mariners didn't have him on their postseason roster, but they needed a starter after exhausting their staff in the Yankees series and the front office found a way to get Wolcott in uniform. The club activated a player (Greg Hibbard) on the disabled list and used the injury rule to replace him with Wolcott.

"We brought him up because we think he can win," Mariners manager Lou Piniella said before the game. "We think he can beat the Indians."

Sure, Lou.

"It's not like we're facing Randy Johnson the second," Indians manager Mike Hargrove said.

In the beginning, it appeared Hargrove would be proved right. Wolcott was so nervous that he looked as though he might need a timeout for a bathroom break. His first six pitches were balls. He threw a strike after Piniella came out to the mound to calm him down, but then he walked Omar Vizquel and Carlos Baerga to load the bases. Albert Belle was up, with Eddie Murray on deck.

Rooster road kill in the making.

But then Belle foolishly swung at the first pitch and went on to strike out. Murray also swung at the first pitch and popped out. And with the sellout crowd roaring for one more out, Jim Thome grounded out to Mariners second baseman Joey Cora, who made a diving stop.

It was the Mariners' season in a nutshell: a bad start, a great comeback and cheers in the end.

In the third inning, the Indians loaded the bases again with one out and one run in. Big trouble. But the Indians' Paul Sorrento pounded a changeup into the ground toward the shortstop. Double play. End of inning.

Obviously buoyed, Wolcott then actually settled down, pitching three scoreless innings and taking a one-run lead into the seventh. Belle finally touched him for a long home run that tied the score, but the Mariners scored the decisive run in the seventh.

After Mariners relievers Jeff Nelson and Norm Charlton had preserved the lead, Wolcott found himself sitting in an interview room talking to reporters about his stunning night. Outside, the remnants of the rollicking crowd chanted his name.

"I never dreamed this would happen in a million years," Wolcott said. "My goal was just to get to the big leagues."

He was easygoing, impassive, even boring in his moment of triumph.

"How did you sleep last night?" someone asked him.

"Fine," he said.

"Did you ever think you were one pitch away from getting knocked out?" someone asked.

"Not really," he said.

OK, someone asked, how can you top it?

Only then did he let down his guard.

"You don't," Wolcott said.

That's Bob Wolcott, by the way. But you know that now, right?

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