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Wednesday, April 1, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Opening Day / Cleveland 10, Seattle 9 -- Poison Pen -- Nine Runs Aren't Enough As Mariner Relievers Blow Big Lead

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

March is a bit early for crunch time in big-league baseball.

It's time for NBA and NHL playoffs and college basketball's Final Four.

But the Mariner bullpen put a new spin on March Madness with the new season barely out of the wrapper, the AL West pennant barely unfurled.

In the first week, perhaps in tonight's second game, the relief group faces a critical situation because in its first chance to prove itself renewed and refurbished, it left a record crowd of 57,822 booing and bowed by turning a 9-6 lead in the eighth inning into a 10-9 loss to Cleveland.

The late innings turned into a rerun of last year, when the bullpen blew 27 saves and Seattle lost seven games in which it scored eight or more runs. Bobby Ayala, Tony Fossas and Mike Timlin - relievers with 20 years of combined experience - gave up four runs on five walks, one intentional, and two hits yesterday.

"This was frustrating as hell," outfielder Jay Buhner said. "This was not a good way to start a season - to make a bad first impression."

Said catcher Dan Wilson, "When you do it on Opening Day, the first game, it's magnified."

Until they prove otherwise, the Mariner pen will be the Magnified Seven.

"When you score nine runs," second baseman Joey Cora said, "you ought to win a game. This was tough for everyone. In the first game, the fans come out with high expectations."

Starter Randy Johnson wanted to share the blame. "The offense gave me a six-run lead in the sixth and I lost half of it. I didn't do my job," he said. "We just have to come back tomorrow and work harder to do better."

As happened so often last year, massive Mariner offense was wasted, four homers nullified.

Edgar Martinez hit Seattle's first home run in the first, making it 2-0, and there were three in the six-run fifth. Ken Griffey Jr. broke a 3-3 tie with a solo homer, and after starter Charles Nagy just missed a two-out, two-strike bid to end the inning, Buhner pounded a two-run shot that made it 6-3. Russ Davis trumped that with a three-runner that ostensibly put the game away at 9-3.

While the Ghost of Seattle's Bullpens Past clanked, Cleveland's relief was a perfect opposite. Four relievers combined for 4 1/3 flawless innings, and Mike Jackson got Martinez for the save and turned a wry eye on the Mariner mess.

"Not to say anything bad about another club, but Seattle has the same bullpen as last year," the ex-Mariner noted. "Unless those guys step up and do the job, they'll be in the same situation as last year. It is tough to get quality guys who can be consistent, although we've done a great job of that over here."

Jackson, whom many consider Seattle's missing reliever last year, pointed out that his team started last year slowly, too. "Only we got better and peaked at the right time," he said. "The Mariners have good guys there. They've just got to get better.

"Seattle has a good offense and good starters. But the money end is where you decide games; the seventh, eighth and ninth is when it all counts."

Johnson allowed three runs on four hits to let the Indians get jump-started in the sixth. "I was mesmerized. I was throwing too many good pitches," he said.

Ayala shut down the inning by fanning David Justice, worked a four-batter seventh, then started the eighth by committing the first of baseball's seven deadly sins, most of them seen in this inning. He walked Jim Thome leading off.

With one out, Kenny Lofton tripled Thome home to make it 9-7. Ayala walked Omar Vizquel after leading in the count 1-2.

Tony Fossas came in and joined the penitents. The left-hander walked the left-handed Justice, putting the go-ahead run on base.

"It's one thing when a guy hits a homer or gets a hit," Fossas said. "What I did is what they teach young pitchers not to do, put the potential winning run on."

When asked about the bullpen and confidence, Timlin said he'd "prefer not to speak about that. . . . We have confidence."

Timlin came in confident and broke Manny Ramirez's bat with his first pitch. Unfortunately for Mariner fans, Ramirez broke ir fans' hearts by squeezing the ensuing grounder between Davis and the third-base bag.

"I threw a good sinker, down and in, got the ground ball, and we didn't catch it," Timlin said. "He hit it where we weren't."

Seattle plays its corner infielders off the line in such situations, instead of on it, as most teams do. "It's a good percentage move," infield coach Steve Smith said. "More balls are put in play toward the middle of the diamond. But when one goes up the line, it can hurt."

Wilson said, "It was a good pitch that broke the guy's bat. Mike is a sinkerball pitcher; and with the bases loaded, you want to go after Ramirez. It just didn't work out."

Pinch-hitter Brian Giles was walked intentionally, reloading the bases and bringing Travis Fryman, a fastball hitter looking for Timlin's sinker/fastball.

"I threw him two sliders to start," Timlin said. "He wasn't biting. He was sitting on fastballs, looking to drive in runs. I just missed after that."

Fryman walked on four pitches, forcing in the winning run in only the second regular-season game the Mariners have ever played in March.

Sandy Alomar followed by smacking a Timlin sinker on the ground toward third, much harder than Ramirez had, but a dozen feet to the right of it, where Davis gloved it playing off the line.

"If I'm on the line, maybe I get Ramirez's ball," Davis said. "But Alomar's ball goes through and they still get two runs."

Can the Mariners and their shaky bullpen play through this?

"We better put this behind us quick if we're going to be contenders," Cora said. "If we're pretenders, it's going to happen all year. It's going to be a test to put this one behind us."

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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