No matter what thrills remain in this 1987 baseball season, none will erase the memory of a confrontation that will go down with the great pennant races of 1951. 1964 and 1967. In a pulsating 11-day drama that began with the Toronto Blue Jays leading the Detroit Tigers in the American League East by a half game, baseball's two winningest teams met seven times. For them, there was no wild-card escape hatch or any other postseason route except first-class transportation home in time for Columbus Day. Every game was decided by one run, four in the winners' final at bat. The Blue Jays appeared to have had the division title won by taking the first three games in Toronto, Sept. 24, 25 and 26, and were three outs away from sweeping to a 4½-game lead with one week to play.
The Tigers then rallied for a 3-2, 13-inning victory on Sept. 27, which, rather than postponing the inevitable, served as a prelude to the final weekend. Playing before three near-capacity crowds in Tiger Stadium, Detroit won the first game 4-3 to move into a tie for first, won the second 3-2 in a 12-inning remake of High Noon and won the third 1-0, behind Frank Tanana, to clinch its second division crown in four years.
"I thought the games in Toronto were classics, and I said the last four games between us were classics," said Tiger ace righthander Jack Morris. "I think the Tigers and Blue Jays drained the word 'classic' from the English language."
The two teams certainly wore out their respective bodies and souls stalking each other. From July 16 to Sept. 25 they were never separated by more than 1½ games; six times after Sept. 5 they changed positions at the top of the standings. "In 1984 we won 111 games and basked in glory," said Morris. "But this feeling of exhaustion and exhilaration means much, much more."
For every unforgettable winner there is an unforgettable loser, and the Blue Jays must now learn how it feels to be like Ralph Branca and Gene Mauch, symbolic losers since before Manny Lee was born. "We may know it's unfair, know how hard we played to the end without [injured players] Tony Fernandez, and Ernie Whitt, but we have to deal with the reality that we may have to live with this the rest of our lives," said Toronto pitcher John Cerutti. The Blue Jays know about blown chances. They lost a 3-1 lead to Kansas City in the '85 playoffs. Their pitching coach, Al Widmar, was Mauch's pitching coach in '64 when the Phillies blew a 6½-game lead with 12 to play. "I dread going home," said Cerutti. "The first person I see is going to ask, 'What happened?' "
Until the Blue Jays win, people from Toronto to San Pedro de Macoris will be asking the same thing. Whitt, the Toronto catcher whose injuries kept him out of the final series, was asked if the Blue Jays' collapse could be called a choke. After all, they had ridden a seven-game winning streak to a 3½-game lead, then blown it with a seven-game losing streak and finished second—and by two games. "People are going to call it what they want and there's nothing I can do about it until we win," said Whitt, his heart aching more than his broken ribs.
The surprise ending to this homer-rich, pitching-poor season was very little longball and pitching aplenty. The two teams' combined ERA in their final four meetings was 1.51. The Tigers won them all because their pitchers allowed just six earned runs—and three extra-base hits—in 43 innings. Five times in the final weekend Toronto's Lloyd Moseby stole second; only once did he get as far as third, and there he died. Blue Jay lefthanders David Wells, Mike Flanagan and Jimmy Key allowed two earned runs in 25 innings over the weekend and got nothing to show for it.
If Toronto had a Ralph Branca-like goat it was George Bell, who probably lost the MVP award trying to win the division with every at bat. Bell had only three hits in his last 27 at bats and ended his season with a weak swing at a 1-0 Tanana pitch inches off the ground, nearly falling backward toward the Detroit dugout as the ball floated out to be caught in shallow center. If Detroit had a Bobby Thomson-like hero, it was Larry Herndon, whose second-inning homer Sunday provided the lone run of the game. Few fans will remember that it was the only fly ball Key allowed or that it cleared the leftfield fence by a few inches. And cold history will never be able to transmit the range of emotions felt by one team thinking it had won it all only to lose it, and another thinking it had lost it all only to win it.
The story's final chapter began in Toronto on Sunday, Sept. 27 when Doyle Alexander took the Tigers toward that sweep-averting victory. Alexander, who has pitched for eight clubs—including Toronto, 1984 to '86—has been nothing short of miraculous since his Detroit debut on Aug. 15. The Tigers' record in his starts went to 10-0, but Detroit still trailed the Jays by 2½ games going into the final week.
The ill fortune that befell both the Blue Jays and the Tigers between Alexander's Sept. 27 start and his next appearance, against Toronto last Friday, will not make either team's highlight film. The Jays lost three straight to visiting Milwaukee and, in the process, suffered their second crucial injury in five days. At virtually the same spot near second base where shortstop Fernandez had broken his elbow while taking a hit from Detroit's Bill Madlock, catcher Whitt, an indispensable player, cracked two ribs trying to take out the Brewers' Paul Molitor. That left the Blue Jays with 21-year-old Greg Myers as their catcher, 22-year-old Lee as their shortstop and 23-year-old Nelson Liriano as their second baseman. As late as Aug. 24, those same three players had constituted the up-the-middle defense for Syracuse, which finished sixth in the International League.
Even worse, the injuries stripped away the protection that had surrounded cleanup man Bell down the stretch. Fernandez had been batting .352 in the No. 3 spot in the lineup, and Whitt had had 20 RBIs in his last 21 games at No. 5. And for a moment it looked like the Blue Jays wouldn't even make it to Detroit; their scheduled 38-minute flight from Toronto to Windsor. Ont., was aborted Thursday night when an engine burst into flames after it sucked in a large bird. The bird was not an albatross, but it might as well have been. When the Jays finally arrived in Motown, their lead was down to one game.
The Tigers had beaten Baltimore behind Walt Terrell earlier Thursday night to salvage a split in their four-game series. "After last weekend's intensity, there was no way either team could avoid some letdown," said Tanana, who had held up well enough to pitch the other victory over Baltimore.
There was no way that intensity would not be renewed when the teams were reunited on Friday in a gusty drizzle cold enough to chill bones. Alexander arrived at the park in the same "lucky yellow" sweater he had worn the day he pitched the "85 American League East clincher over the Yankees in Toronto. The cold was such, though, that when the game started he had trouble gripping the ball. "I struggled more than in any start for the Tigers," he said. In the second inning Myers singled in his first big league at bat, and Lee hit a three-run homer off the facing of the upper deck in right center. Nonetheless, for the 16th time in 20 career decisions, the Tigers found a way to beat Jim Clancy.
The game boiled down to three essentials: 1) the Blue Jays' defense gave the Tigers four outs in every inning from the second through the sixth; 2) the Tiger defense turned five double plays; 3) Bell and Juan Beniquez, Nos. 4 and 5 in the batting order, accounted for 10 outs with seven runners on base.
Detroit's rookie outfielder, Scott Lusader, homered in the second after an error by Rance Mulliniks, and Alan Trammell homered leading off the third. When Clancy walked Darrell Evans. Toronto manager Jimy Williams brought in Wells. Matt Nokes singled to right and Evans tested the arm of Jesse Barfield. The throw to third arrived in time, but Evans kicked the ball out of Mulliniks's glove for another crucial error. With none out, Williams decided to concede the go-ahead run and keep his infield back for the double play. He got what he wanted, sort of, exchanging a run for two outs, but ultimately the decision turned out to be a killer. Detroit took a 4-3 lead and didn't score again in the final six innings.
Problem was, neither did the Blue Jays. Alexander can thank Trammell and his double-play partner, Lou Whitaker, for that. In the fifth, with Lee at third and Lloyd Moseby at first and one out, Mulliniks hit a 3-2 pitch sharply up the middle. Trammell cut behind second base, made a stabbing grab and, without stopping, backhanded a three-foot flip to Whitaker coming across the bag. Moseby would have been safe had he been running; as it was, his slide and the direction of Trammell's throw made Whitaker's pivot extremely difficult. "Making it with your back [to home plate] is the toughest play a second baseman makes," said Whitaker. He stopped, whirled 270 degrees and uncorked a strong throw to get Mulliniks.
Reliever Mike Henneman was the beneficiary—and also the initiator—of the last, and biggest, double play. He fielded a ninth-inning tapper by Myers but threw wildly to Trammell, who did some steps worthy of Fred Astaire to snare the throw, touch the bag and still make the relay to first. And so the teams were in a flat-footed tie.
"Now, it's a best two out of three," said Anderson, alluding to the provision for a Monday playoff game, if necessary. "We sure owe Alexander a lot for getting us here." With the victory, Alexander's record went to 9-0, his ERA to 1.53 since his trade for John Smoltz.
Little did anyone know that the pitching—for both teams—would only get better. In Saturday's scrap, 32-year-old Morris faced the 35-year-old Flanagan. "When we flip on the VCR in January, this will be the first game we watch," said Evans, perhaps prematurely, because he had not yet seen Sunday's game. "The sheer wills of those two pitchers was something I'll never forget. As long as Jack was pitching, we couldn't lose, and as long as Flanagan pitched, they couldn't lose."
Morris gave up one run in the first inning, Flanagan one in the third, and when Morris needed help in the second, Whitaker sprawled to his right to start another 4-6-3 double play. Toronto made it 2-1 in the fifth and afterward Morris said, "That was enough for Flanagan if they make the plays." Said Flanagan, "I locked myself in."
Morris knew it. "A pitcher senses the duel factor with another pitcher," he said, "and Flanagan was so great that I felt he couldn't be beaten. So it was a matter of survival." Morris survived a total of seven base runners in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, getting Bell to ground to short with two on in the seventh. By the ninth he was nearing 160 pitches and running on empty. "I knew that was my last inning, so I wasn't going to allow anything more," he said. "On sheer adrenaline" he finished his nine-inning, 160-pitch effort by striking out Moseby and Mulliniks.
When Flanagan discovered in the eighth inning that his fastball was slowing down, he made it appear faster by pounding curveballs from every conceivable arm angle. "I could have pitched a lot longer," he said, but after 11 innings and 147 pitches—about 90 of them breaking balls—Williams told Flanagan he had done enough. Rookie Jeff Musselman, who had warmed up six times, loaded the bases with one out in the 12th. Williams decided against bringing in bullpen ace Tom Henke, who usually comes on only with a lead, and chose instead Mark Eichhorn. With the infield in, Trammell pulled a skidding hopper to Lee. The ball appeared to tick off his glove, off the inside of his leg and into the outfield. It was scored a hit, and it may have won Trammell the MVP award. In any event, for the sixth time since Sept. 5. the American League East lead had changed hands.
Tanana wasn't about to let it get away again on Sunday. "Alexander gets hitters by figuring what they want and throwing that pitch an inch beyond their hitting zone," said Detroit catcher Mike Heath. "Morris challenges and overpowers. Tanana paints by instinct." Because Tanana was 5-1 as a Tiger lifetime against the Jays and had painted seven shutout innings in his last start against them (a 3-2 ninth-inning Detroit loss on Sept. 25), Blue Jay batters were advised to get up on the plate and go after Tanana's screwball. But, said Heath, "do that and Frank takes over the inside part of the plate." And indeed Tanana confounded Barfield and Garth Iorg by striking them out with fastballs on the inside corner.
It became clear that Tanana was simply performing on a higher level than the Blue Jay hitters. And everything Toronto tried went wrong. In the fourth Williams called for a hit-and-run with cement-footed Cecil (B. de) Fielder on first. But Lee missed the sign, and Fielder, whose last steal attempt (unsuccessful, of course) was for Knoxville in 1984, was out cold. Lee's triple three pitches later was thus wasted. Then, when the relentless Moseby singled to lead off the eighth. Bell felt frustration for the last time. At the plate with none out, down 1-0 in the score and up 1-0 in the count, he didn't wait to get to 2 and 0. Instead he waved at Tanana's shoetop sinker and flied out. Moseby was the last Blue Jay base runner of 1987.
The Tigers had etched their way into history by taking their seven-game match from the Blue Jays 3-4, 2-3, 9-10, 3-2, 4-3, 3-2 and 1-0. "This is the most fun I've ever had in baseball," said Evans. "It is also the year and the team I'll never forget." Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, nobody will forget them either.