Yankees 4, Mariners 2

Wednesday, October 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SEATTLE (AP) _ Dining at one of the city's best restaurants the night before Game 1, Paul O'Neill and Andy Pettitte looked over the menu and liked what they saw.

Salad, steak and a victory for the New York Yankees.

``We just talked about how I think we are both able to take it _ I think our whole team _ just take it to a different level once we get to the postseason,'' Pettitte said.

Said O'Neill: ``He was ready.''

Pettitte pitched eight sharp innings, O'Neill homered and the Yankees played like the team that won three straight World Series titles, beating the Seattle Mariners 4-2 Wednesday in the AL championship series opener.

Playing with the poise and patience that have become staples of their October success, the Yankees improved to an astounding 50-17 since 1996 in postseason games.

``We've got jitters and nerves like everybody else,'' O'Neill said. ``Everybody wants to come out and play well every game in the playoffs, but it just doesn't happen.''

``Throughout the course of the year, you go through a bad week, and the next week you get them. But you do that in the playoffs, and they write about how bad you are.''

And now, after appearing to be in big trouble less than a week ago against Oakland, there seems to be little doubt: These Yankees are big favorites to make it four straight titles.

Facing a team that broke the Yankees' AL record for wins in a season and tied the major league mark with 116 victories, New York was ready from the first pitch.

Even before it, actually.

While the Mariners were still in the dugout preparing to take the field, Chuck Knoblauch and Derek Jeter were already on the on-deck circle. Swinging their bats and studying Seattle starter Aaron Sele, they nodded at each other, confident.

Knoblauch singled on the first pitch, and Jeter followed with a long fly that had the sellout crowd of 47,644 at Safeco Field groaning. The ball was caught, but it was clear _ the Yankees were on their way.

``We try to force you to make a play,'' said Knoblauch, who had three hits. ``Today, it worked for us.''

Said Jeter: ``You want to be aggressive and put pressure on the defense.''

Taking advantage of plate umpire Ed Montague's tight strike zone, the Yankees worked the count all afternoon. The slumping O'Neill hit a two-run homer in the fourth inning on Sele's 66th pitch.

Jeter didn't do much, other than hit the dirt on a high-and-tight fastball from Sele. Moving around a bit stiffly, maybe he was feeling the aftereffects from a tumbling catch Monday night against Oakland.

On this day, they didn't need him a whole lot, especially with Pettitte holding Seattle hitless until the fifth inning and allowing only three hits. Mariano Rivera finished off the ninth for another save.

``Obviously, when you've had success in the postseason, you can always lean on it,'' Pettitte said.

The Mariners managed to score a run off Rivera in the ninth on Ichiro Suzuki's double and a pair of wild pitches, and brought up Edgar Martinez as the tying run. But Rivera broke Martinez's bat on a game-ending groundout.

Overall, though, the Mariners seemed to be back on their heels.

The sure-handed Suzuki stumbled fielding a ball in right field, third baseman David Bell slipped trying to chase down Knoblauch's RBI single, and manager Lou Piniella shouted at three umpires.

Sele lost a playoff game to the Yankees for the fourth straight year. He's 0-5 overall in the postseason, including a defeat in last year's ALCS.

Now, the Mariners hope Freddy Garcia can get them tied in the best-of-seven series when he starts against Mike Mussina in Game 2 Thursday night.

``They've got good starting pitching, and we know that,'' Piniella said. ``They spent quite a bit of money on it, and it shows.''

The Yankees put Pettitte ahead in the second inning. Jorge Posada drew a leadoff walk and Alfonso Soriano blooped a two-out single that Suzuki fell trying to handle.

Knoblauch hit a hard grounder that Bell backhanded, deflecting the ball into foul territory. Bell struggled to keep his footing as he gave chase, and third-base coach Willie Randolph never hesitated, waving home the slow-footed Posada. The run scored easily.

Posada led off the fourth with a drive into the corner and brazenly challenged Suzuki's rocket arm. The throw beat Posada, but he managed to slide around shortstop Carlos Guillen's tag.

Guillen, out for almost three weeks because of tuberculosis, received a standing ovation when he batted in the first inning. Perhaps his timing was a bit off, however, as his tag was slow.

O'Neill, only 1-for-11 and benched twice in the opening round, followed with a line drive into the right-field seats for a 3-0 lead.

That was plenty for Pettitte, who got the Mariners to chase his breaking balls. He permitted just one runner until Martinez singled to start the fifth.

Mike Cameron followed with a double, but Pettitte limited the damage by holding Seattle to John Olerud's RBI groundout and striking out Jay Buhner and Dan Wilson.

Soriano opened the ninth with a shot off the left-field scoreboard. But the rookie stood and admired the drive, thinking it was a home run, and was held to a single. It was the only un-Yankeelike play of the day _ ``it kept me from having a great day,'' manager Joe Torre said _ yet it did not cost them as he later scored on David Justice's single.

Notes: Pettitte improved to 9-5 lifetime in the postseason. ... Pettitte was 0-2 vs. the Mariners this year, part of the reason Seattle won the season series 6-3. ... Mark McLemore will start at shortstop instead of Guillen in Game 2.