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Saturday, April 11, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Seattle Gets Slammed -- Relievers Surrender Seven Runs In Ninth

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

BOSTON - It has been said that the only unbelievable happenstance in baseball would be the shortstop turning into a swan on second base.

But the Seattle bullpen is closing in on a second situation that strains belief.

Why else would Paul Spoljaric, the fourth member of that group to have worked in a ninth inning out of a Stephen King story, have been staring at a spot about 10 rows deep in Fenway Park's right-field seats yesterday.

To that spot, where the stadium lights did not quite cut into the gathering gloom of a chilly New England night, Mo Vaughn had just smashed a coup de grace of a grand slam.

That stroke climaxed a sequence in which Boston sent seven batters to the plate against the Mariner bullpen and scored all seven, upending what had been a 7-2 lead and turning it into a 9-7 win and an Opening Day they'll be crowing about for a long time.

It was dishearteningly similar to the 7-2 lead Seattle blew in the ninth inning in Fenway July 30, the collapse that moved the Mariners to remake their bullpen with trades for Heathcliff Slocumb, Mike Timlin and Spoljaric, all of whom participated in yesterday's crushing inning.

"It just blows me away," Spoljaric said. "What happened tonight, what has happened so far to our bullpen, just blows me away."

It is the second Opening Day lead of Randy Johnson's the bullpen has blown, coming 10 days after Mariner relievers lost a 9-6 lead to Cleveland in the eighth inning of the Kingdome opener, and two days after the bullpen failed to maintain a 2-2 tie in the eighth against New York.

"It's not a slump, not seven (nine) games into the season," Manager Lou Piniella said. "It's got to be a confidence thing . . . it's got to be. There's talent out there; there's talent that's had success. Those guys just have to do better."

Apparently, the current group is all there is - for now.

Mac Suzuki and Rafael Carmona are just beginning their Class AAA seasons, the former to establish his confidence, the latter to regain strength in a healing broken right arm.

Pitching coach Nardi Contreras is in place - for now.

However, Piniella called for Contreras to come into his office and slammed the door before the two met for about 10 minutes.

"We're not looking to do anything with the coaching," a Mariner official said. "The relievers we have should be doing a better job."

Piniella said: "You ask what my emotion is. I can't think of one right away . . . stunned. . . . My wife flew into town this afternoon so we could go out to celebrate our wedding anniversary. . . . I've got to carry this with me."

The relievers also sat stunned in a tomblike postgame clubhouse.

"I would go as far as to say this situation has to turn around," reliever Tony Fossas said. "It would be different if we had a bullpen that had no expectations, was young. But this group has been successful, very successful, in the past. The expectations with this club are high, and we've got to look at ourselves and pull together as a unit and step it up."

The rally came like a sudden squall during a peaceful sail across Cape Cod Bay.

Johnson, who dressed quickly and said nothing before leaving, worked eight superb innings, and should have against a Red Sox lineup in which the last five batters were hitting a cumulative .170 with no homers and three runs batted in.

He struck out 15 for the 10th time in his career and allowed only two hits, one of them Damon Buford's homer, which gave Boston a 2-0 lead in the fourth. He was only three outs short of his third career two-hit game but had thrown 131 pitches and seemingly had avoided not winning in three straight starts for the first time since July 1993.

The Mariner offense started slowly against starter Brian Rose but took a 3-2 lead in the sixth when Edgar Martinez hit a two-run double and scored on John Valentin's error. Seattle added two runs in both the eighth and ninth off a shaky Boston bullpen to build a 7-2 cushion.

"We had Randy on a 125-pitch count," Piniella said. "He did his job, did a great job. All the bullpen had to do was hold a five-run . . . lead for him, and couldn't."

Slocumb, who was booed as he walked from the bullpen in memory of his late-game struggles here until the Mariners traded for him July 31, was first man in.

All he had to do was get the 6-7-8 hitters, the part of the Boston lineup that would struggle in the KingCo League. Pinch-hitter Troy O'Leary singled to center and Mark Lemke, just up from Class AAA and 0 for 3 with two strikeouts this day, walked on five pitches. Darren Bragg doubled to right for one run, 7-3.

"I wanted to stay in, but when you can't even get one out, you don't deserve to stay in," Slocumb said. "Randy pitched great. He deserved better."

When lefty Scott Hatteberg went up to hit, Piniella went for Fossas. What was left of the 32,805 Opening Day crowd started to stir.

Fossas fell behind pinch-hitter Mike Benjamin 3-0 and wound up walking him to load the bases. "The first person I have to look at is myself," Fossas said. "I haven't been doing my job."

When Piniella went to the mound, he gave Fossas the how-come shrug. He brought Timlin in and wound up carrying the pitcher's jacket back to the bench for him.

Timlin did not reciprocate. Nomar Garciaparra singled, 7-4. Timlin got ahead of Valentin 1-2 and after missing with a slider, hit him with a fastball, 7-5.

Vaughn came up and Spoljaric came in and got ahead with a strike.

"I did exactly what I wanted to do," Spoljaric said. "I pitched as we're supposed to against Mo. I got ahead of him, then tried to stand him up with a fastball in. I put the pitch exactly where I wanted to . . . but he hit it."

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

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