SEATTLE -- Call him an infielder or an outfielder, but don't dare to call Mark McLemore a utility player.
|Mark McLemore gave the M's the lead with a two-run single in the second inning.
On Monday at a noisy SAFECO Field, calling him "clutch" was a perfect fit.
In their second straight win-or-go-home game, the Mariners used a two-run single in the second inning by their valuable and versatile veteran to take a lead they never lost in a decisive Game 5 victory over the Cleveland Indians. The win sends Seattle into the American League Championship Series for the second straight season.
A rather poor offensive series (McLemore was 1-for-14 coming into Game 5) suddenly became brighter when he lined a first-pitch single into left field off former California Angels teammate Chuck Finley. He also singled in the fifth inning.
"It's a game of inches," said McLemore of the second-inning single that hit the grass just before bouncing into left fielder Marty Cordova's glove.
"I was looking for something that wasn't in the dirt and fortunately found some grass," McLemore said.
Finley nearly pitched himself out a bases-loaded mess by striking out catcher Dan Wilson on a split-finger fastball. McLemore was watching from on the on-deck circle and didn't want to be put in a position of getting a steady dose of Finley splitters.
So the first fastball he got became the first run-producing hit of the game.
Although McLemore can play many positions on the diamond, the best way to get on his bad side is to call him the best darn utility player in the game.
"I am not a utility player," he says. "A utility player plays once or twice a week. I play every day."
It might be at third base, second base, left field, right field, center field or shortstop -- which is where he has been playing virtually every day since Carlos Guillen was knocked out of action because of pulmonary tuberculosis.
Although he made an error in Game 5, bobbling grounder hit by Omar Vizquel in the first inning, McLemore has played steady defense at shortstop. Guillen probably has more range and is a little more fluid.
"I'm pretty comfortable at short," he said. "Second base is the position that I've played the longest and am the most comfortable at. But [Manager Lou Piniella] hasn't put me there, so I don't worry about that. Whenever he puts me in at a spot, I go out and try to catch the balls and make the plays."
He did that so well at so many positions during the regular season, the Mariners coaching staff selected him as the team's "Unsung Hero." And it was unanimous, based on McLemore's versatility and ability to bat .286 with five home runs and 57 RBIs.
"That was definitely a surprise," McLemore said. "I never really played this game for awards or rewards. I have always played the game because I love the game. For my peers to bestow something like that on me was very surprising and very touching."
Although Bret Boone and Ichiro Suzuki could finish 1-2 in the American League Most Valuable Player voting, McLemore just might have been the MVP of the team.
"He has had a great year, no question about it, both offensively and defensively," third baseman David Bell said. "Yesterday [in Game 4] he had a big hit, and today an even bigger hit."
Two hits. Two RBIs. And now a return trip to the ALCS and possibly to the World Series.
Not a bad way to end a season that began in frustration, anger and a request to be traded.
After playing a solid second base for the Mariners last season, McLemore was shocked when he heard that the team had signed Boone, a free agent, and said he was the likely starter at second base. Boone had the kind of power Mac doesn't have. Boone could make up much of the offense lost by the departure of Alex Rodriguez.
McLemore wasn't ready to become a dreaded utility player.
"I didn't think I was ready to be a backup player," he said. "I knew I had a lot left in my tank."
He asked to be traded during Spring Training and it wasn't until after the regular season began that his attitude changed. "About the second week of the season Lou said he would get me playing time, and that's the last time we talked about it."
Despite not having one position to call his own, McLemore played in 125 games (down from 138 last season), had nearly as many at-bats (409 compared to 481 in 2000) and had almost as many hits (117 compared to 118), more home runs and more RBIs.
He said the toughest part about playing so many positions he has to be careful when he makes throws. "The arm angles are different," he said, "and you have to make sure you don't mess up your arm."
From any angle, McLemore is coming through in a big way.
Jim Street covers the Mariners for MLB.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.