The Seattle Mariners gave away 18,000 bats to kids on Saturday night - only a handful, apparently, from their private collection.
What they kept for their own use proved to be just enough to scratch out a 5-3 victory over the Cleveland Indians, who with Seattle’s help have stumbled into their toughest patch of the season.
Owners of the best record in baseball, the Tribe has lost four of its last five - and yet has actually gained ground in the American League Central on second-place Milwaukee. Seattle, meanwhile, has gained ground, too; Saturday’s victory pulled it into a tie for second with Texas in the West - and another tie with the Rangers, Orioles and Yankees in the playoff wild-card poker game.
But all of those clubs are at the .500 mark, “and .500 isn’t going to get it done,” offered Mariners manager Lou Piniella. “We’ve got to put a streak together one of these days.”
Still, you have to like the way the M’s are treading water against the Tribe. Seattle’s largest crowd of the season - 43,874 on Bat Night - did, though the biggest roar of the night came when Ken Griffey Jr. emerged from the dugout in the seventh inning and trotted down to the bullpen.
“I even got charged up a bit when I saw him out there,” said Mariners starter Chris Bosio, who won his first game since June 29. “But what the hell’s he doing down in the bullpen, anyway? Grab a bat. That’s a fine.”
Later, Griffey did grab a bat - sneaking out for a few cuts in the cage under the Kingdome stands. He continues to rehab the wrist he fractured May 26 and isn’t expected to return until mid-August.
The Mariners, meanwhile, continue to find a way without his bat.
The Indians have been great escape artists this season - winning 16 games in their final at-bat - but in this series they haven’t been able to hold a lead. The M’s have won a pair after falling behind 5-0 and 3-0, and lost the middle game despite erasing a 5-2 deficit and having a bases-loaded chance to pull it out in the ninth.
This time, it was a tailing fastball which Albert Belle lashed for a three-run homer in the third inning that gave the Indians their head start.
“This has been a teeter-totter series,” said Bosio (7-5), who had lost four straight. “I just told myself I couldn’t make any more mistakes. I knew if I just kept it close and gave our guys a chance to score some runs, I knew our guys would come through.”
And so they did - red-hot Mike Blowers, who has 15 hits in his last 29 at-bats, singling home a run in the fourth, and Dan Wilson tying it with a bases-loaded single in the seventh to chase Cleveland starter Charles Nagy.
Then the M’s turned to little ball to win it. Luis Sojo opened the seventh with a routine ground ball that Carlos Baerga played into an error. Edgar Martinez walked and Tino Martinez followed with a ground ball that forced Edgar.
Against Cleveland’s second reliever, Julian Tavarez, Jay Buhner hacked a slow chopper at third baseman Jim Thome, whose one-hop throw to the plate wasn’t handled by Tony Pena. Sojo slid past and slapped the plate - and though Indians manager Mike Hargrove vigorously argued otherwise, TV replays backed up umpire Don Denkinger.
“He’s leaving on contact,” Piniella said of Sojo. “It was a great slide and a great call.”
Warren Newson followed with a double for the insurance run, and Norm Charlton and Bobby Ayala backed up Bosio with an inning each of scoreless relief - though Ayala got touched for two singles in recording his 16th save.
“Look, these guys are going to get their hits,” said Bosio. “They didn’t get the record they have with mirrors.”
But twice now the Indians haven’t been able to put Seattle away - and now the M’s are one of two teams in the American League (California is the other) with a winning record against Cleveland.
“They’re playing great ball against us,” said former M’s shortstop Omar Vizquel, whose single touched off Cleveland’s third-inning surge. “I don’t know why, but they aren’t giving up. They’re winning these games the way we’ve been winning all year.”