CLEVELAND -- Cats and left-handed pitchers have nine lives, and Paul Assenmacher had gone through most of his lives when the Indians signed him this year less than three weeks before Opening Day. But if this is life No. 9 for the 34-year-old reliever, then he made the most of it in Game 5 of the AL playoffs last night.
Seattle had the potential tying run on third in the seventh inning, and Assenmacher ended the threat by striking out Ken Griffey and Jay Buhner, the most important sequence in this series to date. The Indians, buoyed by six strong innings from Orel Hershiser and a two-run homer by Jim Thome, beat Seattle, 3-2, and took a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Mariners manager Lou Piniella wanted to pitch ace Randy Johnson in Game 7, giving him an extra day's rest. But now Johnson, already tired, must pitch Game 6 tomorrow in Seattle on three days' rest.
Game 6 will be the fifth must-win game played by the Mariners since the end of the season. This is it, Griffey acknowledged. Piniella said, "Like I said after two games [against the Yankees], we're down but not out."
But the Mariners, 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position last night and 4-for-33 in the series, are right on the brink.
Today's box score notes that Hershiser was the winning pitcher in Game 5, and Thome hit the only homer. What the agate does not show is that Assenmacher played the pivotal role, staving off the potential tying run in the seventh.
The Indians held the initial lead, scoring a run in the first, and Seattle came back with single runs in the third and fifth innings. In the bottom of the sixth, Mariners starter Chris Bosio allowed a one-out double to Eddie Murray before Thome smashed a
textbook bad pitch, a fastball. Thome's drive sailed into the front row of the second deck in right field, a 440-foot monster. Piniella immediately replaced Bosio -- in 20-20 hindsight, one batter too late.
Piniella said later: "What you've got to remember is that I've got only one left-hander [Norm Charlton] in the bullpen. [Bosio] was pitching well, he hadn't pitched in about seven days and his pitch count wasn't high. So we stayed with him."
Indians first baseman Paul Sorrento provided an opportunity in the seventh. Seattle catcher Dan Wilson, batting against hard-throwing right-hander Julian Tavarez, reached out and punched a grounder toward first. The roller bounced off Sorrento's foot, an error.
The Indians defended against the sacrifice bunt with Joey Cora batting, but Cora swung away and pulled a hard grounder to the right side. Sorrento dove and gloved the ball, a terrific play. He rose to his knees and twisted his body to throw to second, in an attempt to force out Wilson.
But Sorrento's torso contortion affected his throw to second, pulling shortstop Omar Vizquel off the bag. Safe at second, safe at first, nobody out, with Edgar Martinez, Griffey and Buhner due to hit. Yikes.
Martinez bounced into a fielder's choice, Wilson safe at third and Martinez safe at first, and with the left-handed hitting Griffey waiting to bat, Indians manager Mike Hargrove called for a left-hander from the bullpen.
That would be Assenmacher, a veteran recycled for the fifth time when he signed with the Indians. He held left-handed hitters to a .177 average during the regular season, who struck out Boston's Mo Vaughn twice in two tries in Cleveland's divisional series win.
Assenmacher threw ball one to Griffey, came back with a slider that Griffey waved at, for strike one. Then a fastball, which Griffey watched, his bat cocked. Strike two.
The tying run 90 feet from home, Griffey would say later he was just trying to put the ball in play. Assenmacher threw a high, cut fastball, which broke ever so slightly away from Griffey. Just enough. Griffey swung and missed, and was chased to the dugout by a wave of cheers and jeers.
Before Buhner settled into the batter's box, Indians pitching coach Mark Wiley went to the mound. Right-hander Eric Plunk, warmed up and sweating in the bullpen, was ready to go, and if Hargrove managed by the mythical book, he would've relieved Assenmacher.
But Hargrove remembered that Buhner beat Plunk with a homer in Game 3, and stuck with Assenmacher. The right choice. Spinning his slider, he whiffed Buhner, stranding the runners. He trudged off the mound casually, never acknowledging the walls of emotion around him. "I think they got into it a lot more than I did," he said of the crowd.
Piniella said, "That's where you like to be, runner at third with Edgar, Junior and Buhner [coming up]. We just didn't get it done. Give their pitching some credit."
The Mariners attacked again in the eighth and did everything right but score. Pinch hitter Vince Coleman coaxed a one-out walk from Plunk (who replaced Assenmac her with one out in the inning). With 43,607 back-seat umpires screaming bloody murder at each ball called by home plate umpire Tim McClelland, Alex Diaz walked.
Luis Sojo stepped to the plate knowing that a single would tie the score. Piniella put on a hit-and-run play, Coleman and Diaz sprinting as Plunk delivered his pitch to Sojo, who swung and hit a searing line drive. Hearts lept in the Seattle dugout.
A line drive. Right at Cleveland shortstop Vizquel, who caught the liner and tagged Diaz. Sojo cursed and fired his bat in disgust.
(Series best of seven)
AL: Indians vs. Mariners
Last night: Indians, 3-2
Series: Indians lead 3-2
Game 6: Tomorrow night, 8:07, Kingdome, Seattle, chs. 11, 4
Starters: Indians' Dennis Martinez (12-6, 3.12) vs. Mariners' Randy Johnson (20-2, 2.44)
8, Note: Pitchers' records include playoffs
Seattle Mariners vs. Cleveland Indians
) (Indians lead series 3-2)
Day ....... Site/Result ... Time
Game 1 ..... Mariners, 3-2
Game 2 ..... Indians, 5-2
Game 3 ..... Mariners, 5-2 (11)
Game 4 ..... Indians, 7-0
Last night.. Indians, 3-2
Tomorrow ... at Seattle ... 8:07
Wednesday*.. at Seattle ... 8:07
* -- If necessary