CLEVELAND -- Seattle right fielder Jay Buhner hadn't felt this stupid since high school, when a fly ball plugged him between the eyes and knocked him out. With the Mariners leading Cleveland by a run in the eighth inning last night, Buhner misjudged a fly ball and allowed the Indians to tie the score.
Buhner sat in the dugout and stewed and wished for redemption. Lo and behold, he got the chance: Two outs and two on in the 11th inning, Buhner crushed a home run off Cleveland reliever Eric Plunk, Buhner's second homer of the game. For the first time all year, the Indians lost in extra innings, 5-2; the Indians had been 14-0 in overtime in 1995.
The Mariners hold a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series. Ace Randy Johnson started last night, and, "We had to win this game," said Mariners manager Lou Piniella.
Joey Cora opened the 11th with a single, and with two outs, Plunk, the Indians' fourth reliever after eight stellar innings by Charles Nagy, fell behind in the count to first baseman Tino Martinez. On a 2-1 pitch, Cora stole second. With first base open, Indians manager Mike Hargrove elected to intentionally walk the left-handed-hitting Martinez.
rTC Buhner, a right-handed hitter, strode to the plate, his mind full of ugly thoughts. Negative thoughts. He tried to drive the memory of his error out of his mind, with little success. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't go up to the plate hoping I could make up for it. Juice the ball somewhere," he said.
Buhner bashed his homer to right-center, and barely smiled going around the bases. He was just correcting his own error.
The Indians had only five outs left when Alvaro Espinoza hit a routine, high fly to right, a territory ruled by Buhner. One of the best outfielders in the game, he once went 169 games without an error. Buhner drifted toward the fence, backpedaling.
But he had misjudged this ball slightly; it was hit deeper than he thought. He backpedaled a little faster and lunged off one leg, attempting a backhanded catch -- and the ball glanced off his glove and down, to a burst of cheers from the Jacobs Field crowd. Espinoza pulled into second (he could've been at third, had he not jogged around first base).
Johnson shot a menacing glance at Buhner, who cringed, feeling awful. "Lots of things go through your mind. Negative things," Buhner said. "I was really hoping Randy would find some way out of it."
No. Wayne Kirby pinch-ran for Espinoza, and scored the tying run when center fielder Kenny Lofton, who had looked horrible in his previous at-bat, looped a single through the left side of the infield. Johnson has allowed 11 hits to left-handed batters all year, and Lofton had two of them last night.
With his right foot, Buhner pawed at the grass in right field, head down. He was supposed to be a hero.
In the end, he was. And in the beginning.
Leading off the second inning, Buhner ripped a homer down the left-field line, into a sea of outstretched arms in the standing-room-only section.
Two outs into the third inning, Ken Griffey singled and stole second, and when the throw from Cleveland catcher Sandy Alomar bounced away, Griffey hustled into third.
Edgar Martinez subsequently dribbled a grounder to third. But as he swung, his bat shattered at the handle, the barrel cartwheeling toward third. The broken bat didn't appear to distract third baseman Espinoza -- he didn't flinch in any way. But the ball bounced off the heel of his glove. Griffey scored and the Indians were two runs down to Johnson, something akin to David misplacing his slingshot against Goliath.
But leading off the fourth inning, Lofton, the only left-handed hitter in the Cleveland lineup, slammed a long drive toward left. The Mariners' Vince Coleman had positioned himself shallow against Lofton; tracking balls hit over his head is a weakness for Coleman, and Lofton's drive eluded him, kicking up against the wall. By the time the ball bounced on the warning track, Lofton was already closing on second base, and he beat Coleman's parabolic throw to third.
Omar Vizquel slammed a deep sacrifice fly to center. Johnson's lead had been sliced in half.
Much had been made about Johnson's workload the first week of the playoffs, three decisions in seven days. But after starting on Oct. 6, his only work in a game had been three innings of relief against the New York Yankees in the decisive fifth game. Piniella's decision to start rookie Bob Wolcott had allowed Johnson four full days off.
He looked powerful in the early going, retiring the first nine hitters, recording the final out in each inning with a strikeout. It helped, too, that the Indians' lineup included a couple of part-time players, who started to get a couple of extra right-handed hitters in the game against Johnson. Espinoza and first baseman Herbert Perry started in place of regulars Jim Thome, a third baseman, and Paul Sorrento, a first baseman, because Johnson can be so difficult for left-handers, with his 95-mph fastball and slider that virtually sweeps left-handed hitters out of the batter's box.
Lofton, in his third at-bat, bailed out completely on a third strike, swinging helplessly at a sharp slider as his front foot pulled involuntarily beyond the white-chalked box.
(Wherever they were watching, Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro and center fielder Curtis Goodwin could relate.)
But Lofton tripled and scored in the fourth, and Buhner's error had allowed Cleveland to tie the score. Johnson was replaced by reliever Norm Charlton in the ninth inning, to the deafening roar of the Jacobs Field throng. The momentum belonged to the Indians.
So did the game, Buhner thought, as he watched Charlton warm up. A negative thought. He tried altering his frame of mind, imagining what he could do to make up for his mistake. That stupid, stupid mistake, backpedaling on a fly ball. Stupid. At least when he botched that fly ball in high school, he didn't have to feel stupid, because they carried him off the field, out cold.
Later, after the three-run homer, he would laugh, remembering this. "I came up smelling like a rose tonight," Buhner said.