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Joe Saunders’ rare at-bat brings to mind Brian Holman

By Shannon Drayer

This week we saw the odd sight of a pitcher hitting in an American League ballpark. Joe Saunders was called on to hit in the ninth inning Saturday after Eric Wedge’s bench was depleted because of injuries and earlier substitutions.

It is a sight that is fun for fans to see but not quite as entertaining for the team that is forced into the move. Saunders flew out to end the game and the Mariners fell to the Cubs 5-3.

It was the fourth time in Mariners history a pitcher had to hit in an American League park playing under American League rules. On Saturday, Wedge had no choice. He was out of options.

In a game in 1990, however, Jim Lefebvre sacrificed his designated hitter in the eighth inning. By the rules, the pitcher or a pinch hitter would have to hit. Chances were decent they would not get to his spot. That they did is an often overlooked fact in a popular piece of Mariners history.

The pitcher that day was Brian Holman, who at the time Lefebvre made the move was throwing a perfect game against the Athletics in Oakland.

Holman was in town last week for the Cystic Fibrosis Mariners Care Golf Tournament and stayed for a couple of days to watch the team. In preparing for an interview with him I pulled up the box score from that day and looked to see if there was anything odd to talk about. There was indeed. Under Alvin Davis’ name was Holman’s in the batting order: Brian Holman P-PH. What was Holman doing pinch hitting in a game the Mariners won 6-1?

Up two at the time, Lefebvre made a double switch to put Pete O’Brien at first for Davis. O’Brien had been the DH, so that meant the pitcher would bat in his spot.

“I wasn’t supposed to hit,” Holman remembered. “I was the sixth or seventh batter in that inning and we scored four or five runs in that inning.”

Brian Holman was forced to hit in the top of the ninth inning before infamously losing a perfect game with two outs in the bottom of the ninth against the Athletics in 1990. (AP)

Holman indeed was seventh in the batting order in that inning. As he sat on the bench contemplating the ninth inning and the possibility of completing the perfect game, one by one his teammates went to the plate and found success.

O’Brien led off the inning with a single and was followed by Edgar Martinez, who did the same. Dave Valle bunted both runners into scoring position and there was one out. Mike Brumley then scored O’Brien with a fly ball.

Two outs, and two batters ahead of the pitcher. Harold Reynolds knocked a single to right that scored Reynolds. Holman was forced to pick up a bat and head to the on-deck circle as Henry Cotto stepped to the plate.

“I will never forget, Henry Cotto was up right before me and I am literally mouthing the words to Henry, ‘Strike out! Do not let me hit, whatever you do!'” Holman said with a laugh. “And the guy didn’t throw anything close and Henry walks and he is looking down the line going, ‘I am so sorry.’ He knew I didn’t want to hit.”

Holman’s focus was his perfecto. He knew he was in the middle of something special and hitting was a distraction. Now he had a bat in his hands and was stepping to the plate to continue a rally he wanted no part in. All he wanted to do was get to the bottom of the ninth inning.

“Then I was even more mad because I hit a ground ball to Mike Gallego and I didn’t run very hard to first, and that’s not okay – I came from the NL,” he said. “I just wanted to get off that stinkin’ field and get back on the mound and then Gallego boots the ball and I had to run and it was just a comedy of those weird things you just don’t see happen very often.”

Holman, looking to end the inning, ended up on first base. He then reached second on a Jeffrey Leonard single that scored two more runs that the pitcher did not particularly need. Mercifully, Ken Griffey Jr. followed and ended the inning with a groundout to the pitcher.

“A situation like that, I was so locked in and focused, I just wanted to get back on the mound and when I did, of course, two outs and then the home run,” he said with a shake of his head.

Felix Jose led off the ninth for the A’s with a strikeout. Holman forced Walt Weiss into a groundout to second. Gallego was up next, but Tony La Russa, down five with just one out to go in the ballgame, decided to pinch hit for him with Ken Phelps, who hit a first-pitch fastball over the right-field wall at the Oakland Coliseum. The perfect game was no more.

“At that one moment, that brief instant of wanting to crawl into the fetal position and suck my thumb and cry,” Holman recalled, “but Rickey Henderson was up and we still had to get that out.”

Holman struck out Henderson and the Mariners won the game 6-1. He graciously handled the interviews postgame and then woke up at 4 the next morning and screamed. He had been just one out from a perfect game.

Today, Holman lives in Kansas City, where he spends the majority of his time as a motivational speaker, often drawing on the experience of losing the perfect game as well as a number of heartbreaking challenges his family has survived. His son David pitches for the Mariners’ Single-A affiliate, Clinton.

Despite that game, and his one and only American League at-bat, Holman’s memories of his time with the Mariners are golden.

“Such fond memories of getting to play with guys like Junior and Edgar and Jay and Harold and Alvin and Dave Valle and Randy,” he said. “I could go on and on. Such special guys and special team. I was very fortunate to be a part of that.”

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