SEATTLE -- Here we go again. The Seattle Mariners can't step out of their clubhouse without stumbling over a must-win situation, and they find themselves in another one tonight in Cleveland when they face the Indians in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series.
They won an all-or-nothing playoff against the California Angels for the AL West title.
They prevailed in three straight sudden-death situations in the divisional series against the New York Yankees.
They have adopted a "Refuse to Lose" attitude that has carried them -- and their suddenly sensational fan following -- to a place they have never been before.
Now, they face another defining moment in their march toward the World Series.
This time it will be a little different. This time, when left-hander Randy Johnson takes the mound, there will be a tomorrow whether the Mariners win or lose. It is only the third game of a best-of-seven series that is tied at a game apiece, but it may be just as important as the Game 3 that Johnson pitched against the Yankees a week ago.
If the Mariners win, they are guaranteed of coming back to the friendly Kingdome, where they have won five of six games since the AL West race ended in a tie on Oct. 1.
If they lose, they are back in pitching deficit against the winningest team in baseball, with a chance to go three and out at Jacobs Field.
That isn't a bad situation, considering the way Johnson has pitched this year. He went 18-2 in the regular season, including the playoff game against the Angels. He dominated the Yankees in his divisional series start and won the decisive game in relief. He'll be pitching on a full four days rest. The Mariners could not ask for more.
"I'd like to think I've risen to the occasion every time I've needed to," Johnson said. "The last three games I've pitched in were do-or-die situations. Because I've risen to the occasion, there are obviously expectations for me when I go out there. . . .It's fair. It doesn't bother me. That's the responsibility I took on when I became the pitcher I am."
Johnson is such an intimidating presence that the Indians conceded that Game 2 was a must-win situation; the prospect of facing him down 0-2 in the series was just too much to contemplate.
And yet, there is no guarantee that tonight will be a walkover for the Mariners, who face 16-game winner Charles Nagy in front of a Cleveland crowd that will be just as excited and vocal as the rowdy fans that packed the Kingdome.
The Indians faced Johnson just once this year. He pitched a complete game at Jacobs Field and struck out 13 batters, but Cleveland did get eight hits and three runs. Overall, he has an 8-3 record against the Indians, but his 4.20 ERA against them belies a potential vulnerability.
Nagy may be the forgotten man in this matchup, but he could put a big dent in Seattle's World Series plans if he pitches the way he did against the Mariners during the regular season. Then he was 2-0 with a 2.91 ERA in three starts.
"I'm going into this game with the same mind-set as every game," Nagy said. "I know their hitters. I've pitched against them three times this year. I'm just going to go out and do the same thing I've done before."
Nagy apparently figured something out this year. He was 1-6 with a 5.58 ERA against Seattle coming into 1995, but pitched a five-hitter against the Mariners early in the season and held them to a run on five hits over seven innings the last time he faced them (Sept. 7).
In short, Johnson is clearly the more overpowering pitcher, but Game 3 is not a lock.
"Randy knows that every time he pitches against us we hit him pretty good and it's going to be a close game," said Indians second baseman Carlos Baerga. "It will be a big game for us and I think that's going to be the key game for us to win the series."
It's probably bigger for the Mariners, whose pitching for the remainder of the road portion of the playoffs is sketchy. Projected Game 4 starter Andy Benes pitched decently against the Yankees in the divisional series, but not well enough to prove that he can handle increasing postseason pressure, and Seattle manager Lou Piniella hasn't even named a pitcher for Game 5.
By rights, the Mariners should be happy just to be in the ALCS, but a trip to the World Series -- as unlikely as that might have seemed when they entered the series against the Indians -- may be critical to their future.
The Washington legislature went into special session yesterday to discuss possible funding for a new retractable roof stadium that would guarantee the Mariners stay in Seattle, but politicians, like the voters who narrowly rejected a sales tax increase to fund a new ballpark, are seriously divided on the issue.