NEW YORK - There were nine outs to go in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series and the vaunted New York Yankees' mystique seemed to be about as thin as a pinstripe.
The Seattle Mariners, thanks to a go-ahead home run by the no-longer-slumping Bret Boone, were about to steal a second straight victory at Yankee Stadium and reclaim the home-field advantage in the best-of-seven series.
That's when the Mariners found out that underestimating the mystique was a big mistake.
Perennial postseason hero Bernie Williams reclaimed the momentum in the series with an eighth-inning home run and rookie infielder Alfonso Soriano won Game 4 last night with a two-run shot in the ninth, the 3-1 victory putting the Yankees at the threshold of their fourth straight appearance in the World Series.
Now, the Yankees need only ride the dependable left arm of veteran pitcher Andy Pettitte to close out the series in the Bronx tonight and give the stricken city of New York another American League pennant. Right-hander Aaron Sele, who is winless in six career postseason starts, could be the last hope to keep the Mariners' amazing season alive.
Starting pitchers Roger Clemens and Paul Abbott combined to give up one single through the first five innings, and the two pitching staffs combined to set a playoff record with 15 walks. But, for all the base runners, the game was scoreless until Boone went deep with two outs in the top of the eighth inning.
That figured to be it, considering the way the Mariners' bullpen has been pitching in the late innings, but the clutch Williams answered in kind with a home run off former Orioles reliever Arthur Rhodes to tie the game in the bottom of the inning.
Enter Japanese closer Kazuhiro Sasaki. Exit baseball, stage right.
"It's something very big to be a hero in a game like this, which was a very big game," Soriano said through an interpreter. "There were a lot of people watching it, not just here in the stands, but also at home [in the Dominican Republic] on television. It's a very big moment and a very big time for me."
Much was made after the game that Soriano played in Japan at the same time that Sasaki was that country's greatest closer, but the New York second baseman downplayed the angle since he was playing in the Japanese minor leagues at the time.
"I only was able to watch him on television," Soriano said, "but I could see that he was a great, great closer."
The same Mariners' bullpen that looked so overpowering in the final games of the Division Series against the Cleveland Indians suddenly shrank in the spotlight of baseball's most intimidating venue. The Mariners need to win tonight to make good on manager Lou Piniella's "guarantee" that the series would return to Seattle, but they face a much bigger challenge to validate their record-tying, 116-win regular season.
They must win out.
"It puts us in a rather precarious position," said Piniella, in a burst of understatement. "We played as hard as we could. We didn't lose. We just got beat. Tip your hats to them, but we'll come out and play hard tomorrow."
No team ever has lost the first two games on the road in a best-of-seven League Championship Series and come back to win, but no team in the past 95 years had won as many as 116 regular-season games. The big question now is just how the Mariners react to last night's deflating loss.
"This was a wonderful ballgame ... an emotional ballgame," said Yankees manager Joe Torre, "especially after Bret hit that home run. Bernie came right back, and though it only evened things up, it just changed the momentum right there."
Williams has a habit of doing that kind of thing. The home run was his 15th in postseason play and the RBI was his 50th. When the Yankees need a big hit in October, Williams is usually the one to get it.
"I think that has a lot to do with preparation and being blessed with talent," Williams said, "and wanting to be the one ... wanting that situation to happen."
The Yankees really didn't know what to expect out of five-time Cy Young Award winner Clemens, except a warrior-like performance to overcome the sore hamstring that has hampered him throughout the postseason.
Clemens had fluid drained from his swollen right leg Saturday and conceded that the soreness had been affecting his control, but he again rose above the injury to duel Abbott to a standoff in the early innings.
Clemens was throwing hard enough to strike out seven in five innings and hold the Mariners hitless until first baseman John Olerud grounded a single through the infield to lead off the fourth. He worked through the fifth without giving up a run, but clearly was not the same Clemens who won 20 of his first 21 decisions during the regular season and guaranteed himself another Cy Young plaque.