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Sunday, August 24, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Five-Hour Epic Feels More Like Pennant Race

Times Staff Columnist

It was one game that felt like an entire home-stand. Five hours of baseball that gave us our first taste of autumn.

It was a Saturday afternoon in August that was all joy and sorrow.

It was baseball as epic drama. There should have been an intermission.

Forget geography or history. The Giants and Dodgers. Or the Red Sox and Mets. The best on-the-field rivalry in baseball in the 1990s is the Mariners against the Yankees.

This was the latest installment.

The Kingdome was full and, for the first time this season, the atmosphere tingled like 1995. Early in the game, fans were cheering every two-strike count.

This was the first game that felt like a harbinger of fall. This game was the first true reminder that this long, long season is passing the eighth pole and heading into the stretch.

It was a game that was managed like October.

Seattle's Lou Piniella used every available arm. (He was trying to save Bob Wells for a start tomorrow against Boston, but because of this 11-inning marathon, Wells will begin today in the pen.)

Piniella went to Paul Spoljaric with the bases loaded and one out in the fourth. He went to left-hander Norm Charlton to face left-handed hitter Tino Martinez in the seventh.

And Yankee Manager Joe Torre walked Edgar Martinez in the ninth, even though the count was 2-2.

This was a game that was won and lost a half dozen times.

Lost, for instance, in the seventh, when Martinez lined a

two-run double off Charlton that gave the Yankees an 8-7 lead.

Seemingly won, for instance, in the 10th, when the Mariners loaded the bases with two outs and Alex Rodriguez got ahead on the count 2-0. New York's Mariano Rivera, however, came back to strike out Rodriguez.

Finally, the Mariners lost in the 11th when they decided to pitch to Paul O'Neill with runners at the corners and two outs and O'Neill delivered a double and a 10-8 victory.

It was a game of numbers. Eighteen runs. Thirty hits. Sixteen bases on balls. Twenty-nine men left on base.

These were five hours as quirky as a Coen brothers movie.

Quirky? Yankee closer Rivera faced 13 Mariners in two innings and allowed only one run.

Quirky? Ken Griffey Jr., the potential winning run, was thrown out at the plate in the ninth, after Rivera's wild pitch inconveniently bounced off the wall and quickly back to catcher Jorge Posada. The underhand lateral to Rivera narrowly beat Griffey's slide.

Quirky? The Yankees left 17 men on base - and won.

Quirky? The Mariners struck out 16 Yankees and lost.

It was a game that had everything. But in the end, for the Mariners, it didn't have enough.

This was the kind of game you could have talked about through the winter rains.

Remembering Roberto Kelly's ninth-inning, opposite-field home run that tied the game. It was his first home run as a Mariner and the team's 200th homer of the year.

Remembering the afternoon Tino Martinez and Paul O'Neill struck out four times each.

You would have remembered the Mariners actually manufacturing a run in the seventh. Rob Ducey walked. Dan Wilson sacrificed him to second. Ducey stole third and Joey Cora scored him with a fly ball to center.

This is the kind of game the Mariners routinely play with the Yankees. If it isn't a Griffey home run to right, it's an Edgar Martinez double into the left-field corner. If it isn't a Jim Leyritz extra-inning home run, it's an underhand toss from Posada to Rivera.

This could have been, should have been, a springboard game for the Mariners. Their fourth victory in a row. A message to Anaheim that 1997 is beginning to look a lot like 1995. It could have given tired bodies new life.

If Griffey had been safe at home. If Russ Davis or Rob Ducey could have come through with the bases loaded in the ninth. If Rodriguez could have slapped a single past Rivera in the 10th.

If the bullpen, the new, improved Seattle Mariner bullpen, could have held the leads the offense gave it.

All afternoon, the bullpen rescued the Mariners, then robbed them.

Spoljaric struck out Martinez and O'Neill to end the fourth, then allowed two runs in the fifth. Charlton gave up Martinez's two-run double in the seventh but shut down the Yankees in the eighth and ninth. Heathcliff Slocumb pitched a hitless 10th, then lost the game in the 11th.

The bullpen. All eyes, all of September will be focused on it.

This was five hours that was all tease and torture. Five hours of opportunities lost. Five hours that reminded us that the heart of the pennant race is beginning to beat again.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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