It was late Thursday afternoon in Toronto, a few hours before the start of the seven-game, two-weekend, two-city, two-country showdown for the American League East championship between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Detroit Tigers. In the Toronto clubhouse Mike Flanagan, the veteran lefthander, late of Baltimore, who would be starting that night for the Jays, was giving a brief lecture on winning. Sitting on one side of him was Cy Young Award candidate Jimmy Key; on the other was rookie pitcher Duane Ward. "Until you win," Flanagan was saying, "people will harp on every flaw they can imagine. Win, and you're ever thereafter a winner."
The Blue Jays won on Thursday, and again on Friday and Saturday, each time by a single run—4-3, 3-2 and 10-9—each time coming from behind and, in the last two of those wins, during their final at bat. On Sunday the Tigers won 3-2 in 13 innings, but Toronto, a half game behind Detroit as the week began, a half game ahead on Thursday, was 2½ games up at week's end. The Blue Jays had six games left, the Tigers had seven, including their three-game series this weekend in Detroit.
Toronto's three victories stunned the Tigers, as well as four other AL East managers who, in a preseries poll conducted by The Detroit News, had unanimously picked Detroit to win the division race. Two managers mentioned that the Tigers had the better "chemistry"; Boston's John McNamara said what the others seemed to be thinking: "Toronto has the best all-around talent in our league, but Detroit has the chemistry—the knowledge of what it takes to win."
Those managers evidently have not forgotten the 1985 American League Championship Series, in which the Blue Jays led three games to one but ultimately lost to the Buddy Biancalana Royals. But many Toronto players feel other factors contribute to the general lack of respect for the Jays. They believe the team is perceived as black and Latin (not to mention foreign), with all the subtle and unspoken racist feelings that go with that. But then, lack of respect is nothing new to Toronto manager Jimy Williams. When he was hired to manage the Cardinals' Triple A team in Springfield, Ill., in 1978, the owner looked at him and said, "You're the wrong Williams." "He had wanted the Jimmy Williams who now coaches in Baltimore," says Jimy. "I'm used to being anonymous."
So are his players. "We're always being called the team with a few big stars," says first baseman Willie Upshaw. "But we're as deep as anyone in the league down the bench, and what makes us a much better team than we were in 1985 are two factors. First, our bullpen is the deepest in baseball. And second, we've all grown up a lot since then. In '85, we were awed by it all."
Last week they seemed loose and confident even when behind, and they showed their mettle by coming back time and again against Detroit. "Maybe we're winning because I flunked chemistry," said outfielder Jesse Barfield.
Not likely. It was the Tigers who had the wrong mix. As the series began, Detroit's exceptional starting pitchers, Jack Morris, Doyle Alexander and Walt Terrell, had a combined 24—7 record dating back to the All-Star break, and a supercharged offense, the most productive in baseball, had been obscuring the bareness of the bullpen. Rookie Mike Henneman was the only reliable reliever on a staff that had blown 10 of its last 20 save opportunities before the series.
In contrast to Detroit manager Sparky Anderson's one-man bullpen, Williams had the luxury of having four righthanders and three lefties, all battleworthy, thanks to September call-ups. In fact, while Anderson would start Morris, Terrell and Alexander, each on three days' rest, Williams gave his starters an additional day off by opening with rookie reliever Jose Nunez on Sept. 22 in Baltimore and following him with three more relievers.
"That was a good lift, getting the extra day," said Flanagan before hooking up with Morris, the premier pitcher of the decade, in the opener. Flanagan, 35, had been given up for dead after he blew his elbow out in May and spent two months on the disabled list. When the Cardinals, Reds and Yankees were looking around for late-season pitching help, they ignored the 1979 Cy Young Award winner, figuring all those years—and in one stretch 157 starts without missing a turn—had taken their toll. But Toronto traded two young pitchers to get him. Flanagan's first appearance, on Sept. 5, was a shutout of the Mariners, and before he faced Morris, the Blue Jays had lost only one of Flanagan's four starts. "Flanagan's like a new man...or should I say like the old Mike Flanagan?" said Darrell Evans, the Detroit DH-first baseman.
But it didn't look as if the Tigers would have much trouble with Flanagan, or with Toronto, after what happened in the third inning. With Bill Madlock on first, Kirk Gibson tapped to second baseman Nelson Liriano. Madlock, who isn't known as Mad Dog for nothing, went hard at shortstop Tony Fernandez to break up the double play, as if the Blue Jays really had a chance to catch the speedy Gibson. "No chance," said Toronto coach Cito Gaston. "But Madlock and Fernandez are such intense competitors they still went at it." Madlock threw a cross-body block. "If my knee wasn't injured, I'd have avoided him," Fernandez said later. But he could not. He went head over heels, and when he landed, his elbow struck the metal strip that frames the sliding area around second base. "As soon as I got to him, I knew it was broken and he was out for the year," said Williams. After the game, Madlock received death threats at his hotel, but as Fernandez told The Toronto Star, "He was just doing his job, trying to win."
The six-minute delay caused by the incident helped neither Flanagan nor Morris. When the inning resumed, the Tigers took a 2-0 lead on a bloop single by Chet Lemon and a wild pitch. Then Morris came out and, he says, "did what I don't normally do. I stopped challenging hitters." Liriano led off with a single and stole second. Lloyd Moseby walked, and George Bell singled to load the bases. Ernie Whitt knocked in Liriano and Moseby to tie it, Rance Mulliniks doubled in Bell for a 3-2 lead and, when one of Morris's many bouncing forkballs escaped catcher Mike (Gump) Heath, Whitt broke home from third. Heath got the ball to Morris, who was at the plate covering but off-balance and falling away as he made the tag. Thinking quickly, Whitt stopped short, waited for Morris to fall on his bottom, then touched the plate to make it 4-2. Sorry, John McNamara, but that's also knowing what it takes to win.
Flanagan pitched into the seventh, when, with two on, two out, righthanded Larry Herndon at the plate and the score now 4-3, Williams had choices any manager would envy. He didn't want to bring in a righty; that would allow Anderson to pinch-hit the lefthanded Matt Nokes. Williams needed a hard thrower, because Herndon has a notoriously slow bat. So he called on David Wells. The rookie lefthander jammed Herndon, who hit a soft line drive that seemed about to land in shallow left until Manny Lee, Fernandez's replacement at short, raced out, leaped and speared the ball to kill the threat. Tom Henke struck out the final two batters in the ninth for his 34th save.
Afterward the Blue Jays did their best to downplay the loss of Fernandez, who is the best shortstop in the American League and, to some, in all of baseball. "We'll miss Tony. He's one of the greatest players in the game, and the heart of our lineup," said Bell. "But since Tony's been playing on a real bad knee for a month, Manny Lee might even give us more defensively."
On Friday, Lee gave Toronto even more offensively. Key pitched his typical game, allowing one earned run in 8‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings—but trailed 2-0. Key, 17-6, hadn't lost since July 11. He had allowed more than three earned runs just once in his last 24 starts. His 2.78 ERA was the best in the league. He left the game in the top of the ninth after two singles, but rookie lefthander Jeff Musselman, Harvard '85, kept Toronto in the game by retiring Gibson on a soft liner.
Anderson had started Frank Tanana, who had been banished from the rotation after allowing 54 hits and 28 runs in 27 innings over seven winless starts. But for seven innings this night he mastered the Blue Jays. Then his shoulder stiffened and Sparky had to go to his threadbare bullpen. Dickie Noles, the journeyman righthander acquired from the Cubs only four days earlier, got through the eighth, but gave up a single to Barfield in the ninth. Williams sent up Rick Leach as a pinch-hitter; Anderson called on lefty Willie Hernandez, who stopped being a stopper long ago. Leach doubled to right, moving Barfield to third and bringing up Lee.
Before leaving the dugout the 22-year-old switch-hitter had gotten a pep talk from 15-year veteran Juan Beniquez. "I told him he'd been pulling off the ball," Beniquez said later, "and that since Hernandez would try to get him out with screwballs away, he should try to hit the ball to rightfield." Sure enough, Hernandez threw Lee a hard screwball down and away. Lee, batting right, lined it inside the first base line for a triple, and tied the game at 2-2.
Anderson brought in Henneman with orders to walk both Upshaw and Liriano to load the bases. Then, with one out and the infield drawn in, Lloyd Moseby hit a vicious one-hopper right at Lou Whitaker. It was a perfect double play ball, and shortstop Alan Trammell quickly got to the bag, though Whitaker said later, "We were thinking home all the way." But Whitaker's stiff-armed throw to the plate bounced in the dirt and away from Heath as Lee slid across with the winning run.
"I don't put blame on players," said Anderson. "How does Lou know that Trammell is there [for the double play]?" Whitaker and Trammell have played together longer than any DP combination in history, that's how. Oh yes: Musselman got the win to make him the league's winningest rookie, at 12-4.
After that bitter defeat, Anderson made two observations. "That is one tough team," he said of the Blue Jays. "And we have to win both of these remaining games here." Well, Saturday's looked like a lock. The Tigers knocked out Dave Stieb, who hadn't won since Aug. 18. Nokes hammered a grand slam off reliever John Cerutti, his second homer of the day, and Detroit had a 9-4 lead by the fifth. Trammell, who at week's end was batting .440 with six homers in his September MVP duel with Bell (.358, five homers), was on his way to getting four hits and two stolen bases, giving him 20 for the season to go with his totals of 102 RBIs, 105 runs, 196 hits and 27 homers.
Twice the Blue Jays kept Detroit from breaking the game wide open, once in the fifth, when Lemon grounded into a freak double play with runners at second and third—Nokes was called out for interference after running into Lee—and again in the seventh, when Liriano and Lee turned a dazzling double play with the bases loaded and one out. In the ninth the Tigers clung to a 9-7 lead and had runners on second and third. Williams brought in Nunez to pitch to Detroit reliever Henneman, who was batting because Anderson had earlier been forced to move DH Evans to first after he'd sent up a pinch-hitter for Dave Bergman. "Actually, I wanted Nunez for the next hitter [Lemon]," said Williams. "I thought it would be good for him to throw a couple of strikes to Henneman." Nunez struck out Henneman and popped up Lemon to set the stage for one more chemical reaction. Lemon, who always plays close to the warning track in center, let Barfield's routine fly drop for a double. Upshaw beat out an infield single, and Henneman hit Leach with a pitch to load the bases. Williams then sent Beniquez up to hit for Lee against Noles.
"Beniquez can hit anyone," Anderson had said, and indeed the veteran's .311 average over the last four seasons is the highest for any righthanded hitter in baseball. Beniquez pulled a line drive toward the hole between short and third. Trammell made a brave leap. "It was a foot from being a triple play," said Beniquez. Instead it was a triple, rolling all the way to the fence. Three runs scored, and Toronto had its 19th win in 24 September games. Eleven of those games had been won by the bullpen. On the other hand, Henneman's victory for Detroit on Sunday was only the third by a Tiger reliever in the month, and only the fifth loss by a Blue Jay reliever in two months.
As Toronto prepared to play three games with Milwaukee and then invade Detroit for this weekend's season-ending series, one fact was now abundantly clear to the Tigers and four red-faced managers in the American League East: The Blue Jays have what it takes to win, for sure.