Early jitters didn't shake cool Wolcott Mariners' young pitcher, 22, gains win, fame in Game 1; Indians bats hushed; Weary bullpen gets much-needed rest


SEATTLE -- Bob Wolcott, 22 going on 36, knew he was going to pitch the first game of the American League Championship Series at 11 a.m. Monday, and wasn't nervous.

He came to the park Tuesday afternoon about 1 p.m., and he wasn't nervous.

He sat in the clubhouse watching TV while his teammates were taking batting practice, and even at the normal time a starting pitcher would begin his warm-ups, he wasn't nervous.

Then he started the game, walked three Cleveland Indians in a row on 13 pitches, and was staring at Albert Belle, the biggest, baddest, home-run-hittingest dude in these major leagues. He was also staring at his doom.

All he had with him was a changeup he doesn't know how he found, and the words of manager Lou Piniella in his ear: "Hey, if we get beat 11-0, you still had a good year, and you'll have a good off-season."

Suddenly, the stoic Seattle Mariners right-hander found the poise that won him this start, and his promotion to the big club two months earlier. Belle strikes out on a high fastball, the tremendous clutch hitter Eddie Murray hits a foul pop on the first pitch, and young buck-in-training Jim Thome hits a hard but playable ground ball to second baseman Joey Cora.

Disaster averted. Game saved. Mariners eventually win, 3-2, and a hero is born.

"Yeah, pretty neat, huh?" Wolcott said with a slight smile.

It is as close as Wolcott comes to exuberance. A second-round draft pick in 1992 who turned down a scholarship to Stanford to turn pro, he is famed in the Mariners clubhouse for his outer calm, as still as an Oregon lake on a warm spring day. He is relentlessly teased by his teammates for this. Right fielder Jay Buhner once coaxed him after a good 15 minutes to do a cartwheel, which he did and then sat back down without breaking a smile.

He is now free to be as stone-faced as he wants. Because after that first inning, and after pitching out of jams in the second and third as well, he not only got the Seattle bullpen much of the rest it has craved, but got the Mariners a win few people thought they could manage in such a depleted state.

"It was awesome," veteran pitcher Andy Benes said. "But you know, we expected him to do a good job because he pitched in big games in August, too. And those were big because we were trying to catch the Angels and stay ahead of the Yankees. . . we've been playing big games for two months."

Wolcott wasn't part of the grand plan, either in August or now. He was an emergency starter for Randy Johnson when the Mariners ace couldn't get loose in the bullpen on Aug. 31 at Fenway Park. Seattle won, 11-2. He got Johnson's next start because of the Big Unit's shoulder problems and the Mariners beat New York, 9-6. He wasn't even on the postseason roster until Johnson had to pitch three innings of relief in Game 5 of the division series against the Yankees.

"Yeah, I figure I cost Randy three wins this year," Wolcott said, again airing out his driest humor.

Tuesday's victory, however, was by far the biggest. Although he never let on he was nervous, he was. He was also a little stale, not having pitched since five innings of relief Sept. 30. This combination eased him onto the mound for the start of this series, and suddenly he went all Bambi.

"You expect him to be nervous in a game like this," pitching coach Bobby Cuellar said, "but you're hoping he finds his groove sooner than he did."

"It was like I was throwing darts instead of just letting it go," Wolcott said of his early control problem. "I just couldn't get comfortable out of the stretch. It got better [after the bases were loaded] when I started pitching from a windup again."

In the end, the salutes were for Wolcott, the latest in a short line of last-minute starters who earned a spot of lasting fame. Wolcott had done what Jim Beattie did for the Yankees in 1978, when Beattie filled in for Ron Guidry at the last minute in the opening game of the American League championship against Kansas City. Beattie went on to be, among other things, a Mariner of indifferent vintage. Wolcott will be spared that.

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