CLEVELAND -- On a cold, windy night at Jacobs Field, with seasons hanging on every pitch, there was a late-inning collision between the Cleveland Indians' bullpen and the powerful sweep of destiny that has carried the Seattle Mariners deep into the postseason.
The bullpen won, with the help of a little luck. And the favored Indians finally have some breathing room in the American League Championship Series.
"Now the pressure is on them," Indians closer Jose Mesa said after finishing his club's 3-2 win in Game 5 last night.
Indeed. The win gave the Indians a 3-2 lead in the series and effectively eliminated the Mariners' Randy Johnson as a decisive figure in the series. The Indians can lose to Johnson in Game 6 tomorrow night and still win the series in Game 7 against Tim Belcher or Bob Wolcott, far lesser mortals.
Not that the Mariners didn't try to blunt the Indians' gathering momentum with yet another comeback last night. No surprise there. This is a club that came from behind to win 43 games during the season, rallied from 13 games back in the standings to win the AL West and came from 2-0 down to eliminate the Yankees in the divisional playoffs. Their motto is "Refuse to Lose."
Finding themselves down by a run as the seventh inning began, the Mariners put together scoring threats in the seventh and eighth innings that were so serious that the sellout crowd nestled into their blankets and winter jackets and didn't make a sound.
In the seventh, the Mariners had runners on first and second with none out -- and Edgar Martinez and Ken Griffey due up.
In the eighth, they had runners on first and second with one out.
Neither threat produced a run.
The Mariners didn't really refuse to lose. But they did, finally, lose.
It meant they must win twice at the Kingdome or settle for watching the Indians play the Braves in the World Series.
"Like I said after we lost the first two games to the Yankees, we're down but we're not out," Mariners manager Lou Piniella said. "We came back there, and we'll come back and play hard in the two games in Seattle."
If there are two games. The Mariners must win Game 6 to assure that, and the guess here is that Johnson won't dominate to the degree he did in Game 3 on Friday night.
Johnson showed the effects of the long season that night, throwing numerous breaking balls because his fastball wasn't humming as hard as usual. And the aggressive Indians batters helped him out immeasurably by swinging frequently early in counts, letting him skip through innings without having to battle.
That won't happen again, particularly with Johnson having to pitch with only three days of rest.
Although Johnson has lost only one of 19 starts at the Kingdome this season, he will face the toughest challenge of his career tomorrow night with all those factors working against him.
But even if Johnson does shut the Indians down, there is always Game 7, in which the Indians probably would start Charles Nagy.
"I feel a little bit like we're flying into the teeth of the lion going back there," Indians manager Mike Hargrove said, "but it's a lot nicer that we have to win just one game instead of two."
His bullpen put his team in that position with last night's performance.
"Give them credit," Piniella said. "They did what they had to do."
The seventh inning in particular was a great escape. The Indians had just taken a 3-2 lead on Jim Thome's two-run homer in the sixth when Indians first baseman Paul Sorrento committed errors that let the first two batters reach base in the top of the seventh.
After the Mariners' Edgar Martinez grounded into a force play, the Indians' Paul Assenmacher came out of the bullpen to strike out Griffey and Jay Buhner to end the inning.
"I don't know if that was the whole game, because Thome's homer was huge," Hargrove said. "But needless to say, it was a critical moment."
Just as critical was the eighth inning, in which Hargrove set himself up for a torrent of second-guessing by emerging from the dugout with one out and replacing Assenmacher with Eric Plunk, who had allowed the game-losing homer to Jay Buhner in Game 3. Jacobs Field almost erupted when Plunk walked the first two batters and worked Luis Sojo to a full count.
With the runners going, Sojo cracked the next pitch hard enough drive in both runs - but the ball sailed right to shortstop Omar Vizquel.
Luck was an Indian last night.
The ninth inning was a breeze, with Mesa retiring the Mariners in order.
Even before the celebration had died out, though, the Indians were fretting about having to win a game at the Kingdome, where the Mariners were 46-27 during the season and have won 17 of their past 20 games.
"It's not going to be easy at all," Thome said.
PD But a lot easier than it could have been, thanks to the bullpen.