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Yank Refugee Does Enough, And That’s Great

Wed., April 3, 1996, midnight

It’s a distant runnerup to trying to make the mortgage on minimum wage, but the stress of merely waking up each day in the employ of George Steinbrenner is its own kind of torment.

Following Randy Johnson, by comparison, is a chocolate sundae.

So sayeth Sterling Hitchcock, and by golly it sells. Conditionally, mind you.

Autumn is long gone and April has arrived, but still the Seattle Mariners refuse to lose, even while their big sticks refuse to hit. As they did on Opening Night I, the M’s bowled over the Chicago White Sox by a big, fat run on Opening Night II - 3-2, again - though we’re talking about the difference between obligation and revelation.

The Mariners and their paramours have come to regard Johnson’s turns in the rotation as their special force field against the rest of the American League.

Inviolable. Inevitable.

As such, just getting Sunday’s opener into extra innings to buy some time was mostly a happy spinoff of, well, desperation.

Beyond the Big Unit, though, Seattle’s pitching - and its destiny - gets quite Twilight Zonish.

So, for your consideration: Sterling Alex Hitchcock, late of the New York Yankees, the other principal in the Tino Martinez trade.

With the memory of Johnson’s 14-strikeout performance on Sunday still tacky, Hitchcock made some art of his own - stifling the Sox on just four hits through seven innings.

Hitchcock struck out just two batters - neither of them, amazingly, Ron Karkovice, who can’t touch anyone else on this staff - and his fastballs didn’t have the hockey-puck blue tails attached the way Johnson’s do.

“My fastball’s like (his) changeup,” Hitchcock laughed, “and my changeup is like a super eephus pitch or something.”

But this isn’t comparison shopping. The M’s simply need Hitchcock - and Bob Wolcott this afternoon, and the other young starters, Edwin Hurtado and Paul Menhart - to eat up some innings and keep things close.

They need only be impressed by Johnson. Leave the intimidation for the hitters.

“Just watching him the night before kind of fired you up,” Hitchcock said. “You kind of want to do as well as he did, though I don’t know if that’s possible.”

It was this time. And the next time?

Well, you’re talking about a young lefthander - just 24 - with a career record of 16-15. That’s good enough to be No. 2 in the rotation in Seattle, but good for grief in New York - where they can’t wait to hustle a prospect to Yankee Stadium and then stew if he can’t mow down the Orioles the way he used to in the Gulf Coast League.

Parallel hell: Satanbrenner on one side, Tabloidia on the other.

“Pitching is pitching, no matter where you’re at,” Hitchcock insisted. “But on a personal level, I’m much happier here. It’s much easier to focus on what’s happening on the field than in New York.

“I was talking with (Chicago right fielder) Danny Tartabull before the game and he asked me how I liked it over here. I told him I didn’t know baseball was supposed to be fun. And he kind of agreed.”

Bull did a stretch in both joints, but the divorce from the Yankees had a real Roseanne quality to it.

It always does.

“It’s a lot of everything there,” Hitchcock said. “You don’t even have to step out your door to feel it. Just forking over all that money for rent. That’s enough pressure there to stay in the big leagues there, just so you can afford the rent.

“The attitude in the Northeast is different. Really, there’s nothing I enjoyed about (New York) other than an occasional nice dinner in the city and a Broadway play.”

Broadway might appreciate the Mariners, though they’re tough to categorize right now - being neither musical comedy nor high drama, though they’re certainly trying. The big boppers - Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez and Jay Buhner - are a combined 2 for 23. It’s far too early for panic, but Buhner struggled all spring with a swing that bore no resemblance to the one that produced 40 homers a year ago.

Fortunately, none of them was at bat when the M’s loaded the bases in the third.

Instead, the Mad Hacker, Luis Sojo, slashed ball one past third baseman Robin Ventura into the corner for a double and scored them all.

That left it to the defense and the bullpen to pick up Hitchcock when he ran out of gas. A sixth inning line-drive double play pulled off by Sojo and shortstop Alex Rodriguez was something you didn’t see much of a year ago. Relievers Bobby Ayala, Mike Jackson and Norm Charlton navigated around some rocks in the eighth and ninth.

Four pitchers in a 3-2 game in April?

“You’ve got to win these one-run games whenever you can,” said manager Lou Piniella. “It’s a good tightener. It gets you used to winning those close ones - knowing that you’re going to win them, that you’ll get the job done.”

A tightener. Don’t recall that ever being a concern before, but if the M’s want next September to be anything like the last one, it could come in handy.

, DataTimes MEMO: You can contact John Blanchette by voice mail at 459-5577, extension 5509.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

You can contact John Blanchette by voice mail at 459-5577, extension 5509.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

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