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Saturday, April 8, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Center field takes center stage again

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Mariners got good pitching again, with a solid six-inning start from John Halama and a second straight save from Kazuhiro Sasaki. They got good hitting again, with homers from Alex Rodriguez and Joe Oliver.

But the only one who warmed the hearts of the 40,827 at Safeco, who brought them screaming out of their seats in the eighth inning of last night's 7-5 victory over the New York Yankees, was Mike Cameron.

Cameron stopped the game - for a prolonged standing ovation - with a memorable long-run-and-leap, over-the-fence robbery of Derek Jeter's bid for his second home run of the night with the Mariners holding a 6-3 lead.

It was as if with this outpouring of affection Seattle was saying: "Welcome, Mike."

These people know great play in center. This play was the equal of any from . . . well, from the previous center fielder.

"Yeah, it felt like they were saying `Welcome,' " said Cameron, who has thrilled fans with a triple and homer in this opening week. "It gave me goose bumps. I didn't know what to do; I mean, we're playing a game. There was a batter in the box, and they kept cheering and cheering."

They only stopped for a while. When Cameron came up as the second batter in the bottom of the inning, the fans stood and cheered again - when he struck out.

"I don't think I've ever seen anyone get an ovation for striking out," Manager Lou Piniella said. "He's a great athlete and a great kid. He's going to make some good plays there, but that one was exceptional."

Cameron ranked it his best ever.

Jay Buhner called it "a little deja vu."

"Yeah, we've seen some great plays out there, haven't we?" said the right fielder, who made a nice sliding play of his own to take a hit from Bernie Williams in the sixth.

"A play like that is nirvana for an outfielder," Buhner said. "I don't know if people realize what an athletic feat it is to run that hard - Mike looked back twice to the wall as he ran - then time the jump, keep your balance, and catch the ball - and hold it for the out after all that." Indeed, Cameron's play wound up with the ball showing at the tip of his mitt, a classic snow cone. "I knew I got leather on it," he said. "I just kept squeezing as I pulled my glove back in. I didn't know until I saw the ball if I had made the catch." Sasaki and the others in the Seattle bullpen did. They had a great view of the play, just to the left of center. Sasaki's reaction? "Wow," said the reliever, who fanned Roberto Kelly to end the game after Rodriguez made a superb play up the middle to take a hit from Jorge Posada.

"We were all cheering in the bullpen," Sasaki said. "It was a real major-league play."

It capped the Mariners' third straight victory and what Piniella called "another good game for us."

"We got good pitching and timely hitting and again made some nice plays in the field, with Cameron's the best, of course," Piniella said.

Rodriguez gave Halama a run to work with in the first, slicing a first-pitch solo home run off Yankee starter Andy Pettitte into the seats in right, his second home run of the season. Seattle tacked on a run in the second, via a Pettitte balk, but may have hurt Halama because the Mariners took about 20 minutes to get through their half of the inning on a cold night.

Halama was cold in the third. After throwing seven first-pitch strikes to eight batters in his first two frames, he opened with balls to all five batters in the third and it cost him his lead. With one out, Chuck Knoblauch doubled to left and Derek Jeter hit a 2-0 fastball into the Seattle bullpen in left-center for a homer to tie the score at 2.

Halama and Pettitte worked well into the fifth, when the Seattle defense lapsed for the first time and gave the Yankees a run to go up 3-2. Clay Bellinger led with a double to left and with one away Jeter lofted a fly ball to deep right. Jay Buhner caught it and, with Jeter tagging and moving to third, made a long throw that bounced off the glove of second baseman David Bell and rolled into short left, an error that allowed Jeter to score.

However, Pettitte couldn't hold the edge for more than a few minutes. Working carefully to Rodriguez, he gave him a leadoff walk, the Mariner's seventh base on balls in four games. John Olerud fanned again, but Buhner picked him up with a double into the left-field corner to score Rodriguez and tied the score. With two away, Oliver shot Pettitte's first pitch into the first row of seats in right for a homer that restored Seattle's two-run lead, 5-3.

Seattle tacked on solo runs in the sixth and eighth to go up 7-3. Jose Paniagua pitched well in the seventh, and Paul Abbott did the same in the eighth, but the enlarged lead proved vital when Sean Spencer hit his third homer of the year to make it 7-5 in the ninth. Sasaki relieved Abbott and got the last three outs.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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