It’s 8 a.m. and I’m getting fidgety. Five hours from now, James Paxton will be starting the most important Mariners game in 16 years. Will I make it to Safeco Field by the third inning?
The wheels on the bus stopped going round and round about 45 minutes ago, when everything came to a standstill. Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle of Fife.
Relax, I tell myself. There are worse ways to spend early-October mornings than anticipating an unscheduled baseball game between the Mariners and Minnesota Twins.
The notion of the season decided by a play-in showdown had seemed absurd two weeks ago, after the Mariners were swept at Houston. Their record was 74-76, 4.5 games behind Minnesota in the race for the second wild-card berth. They were as cooked as burnt toast.
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But the team unable to manufacture a hot streak manufactured a hot streak. Mike Leake got things rolling against the Rangers with another quality start in the opener of the season’s final homestand. Then Felix Hernandez finally resembled an authentic version of King Felix, and Paxton recovered from that worst-case-scenario return to the rotation in Houston, where every pitch was either a slider in the dirt or a chest-high fastball begging to be clobbered.
Three straight over Texas didn’t capture the imagination of fans distracted by the Seahawks’ sluggish offense, but the sweep of Cleveland sure opened some eyes. The Indians already had clinched the A. Central in the wake of a 21-game winning streak, and they brought little energy to Safeco Field.
While the Mariners were gaining momentum, the Twins approached the finish line gasping for air, victims of a schedule putting them on a nine-game road trip that included three against the Yankees and three against the Indians.
What loomed as a checkmate fortnight for the Mariners turned into a 10-2 run. And what loomed as a victory lap for the overachieving Twins turned into a 5-7 stumble, leaving both teams with a regular-season record of 84-78.
Because the primary tiebreaker formula is head-to-head competition, the Mariners – 4-3 vs. the Twins – have been awarded home-field rights for the play-in game.
And now there’s light at the end of six miles of orange cones on I-5. The bus is plodding forward, north to Seattle. I’m more giddy than fidgety.
I think back to 1995, and the one-game playoff against the Angels. It was a rainy Monday in Seattle and the mood outside the Kingdome was electric. When the gates opened during batting practice, there was enough electricity to produce the world’s first recorded indoor thunderbolt.
Then Randy Johnson’s first pitch to Angels leadoff hitter Tony Phillips was called a strike, and more than 52,000 fans roared on cue.
“This,” I said to myself, “is going to be fun.”
The bus pulls in at the stop on Royal Brougham and the flashbacks to 1995 are vivid. Sidewalk vendors are grilling sausages. Ticket scalpers are open for business on the street corners. There’s magic in the air.
And I wonder: Will James Paxton’s first pitch be called a strike? Will the Safeco Field crowd offer the same boisterous reaction to strike one that it gave Johnson in the Kingdome?
I wonder, too, what Mariners player will step up and produce the kind of dagger-in-the-heart hit Luis Sojo did with the bases loaded in 1995.
Robinson Cano? He’s been on a two-week tear. Nelson Cruz? He was leading the league in runs batted in before the Mariners caught fire, and each RBI since has defined clutch.
Mike Zunino? It’s not a question of if he’ll clear the left field bleachers with a mammoth blast, merely when.
Then again, baseball being baseball, perhaps some unlikely candidate – backup catcher Carlos Ruiz, or utility infielder Taylor Motter –might emerge as a legend of the fall.
The gates around Safeco Field are alive with the sound of street life: God squad fanatics yelling into megaphones, telling me I’m doomed to spend an eternity in hell... traffic cops whistling pedestrians across the intersection... a saxophone player covering a vaguely familiar tune from a 1950s movie.
Amid the din, I’m also hearing a something akin to a drumbeat.
Dum, dum, dum, dum.
Ah, of course. My clock radio alarm, set for 8 a.m.