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A FLIGHT TO THE FINISH

Oct. 02, 1989
Oct. 02, 1989

Table of Contents
Oct. 2, 1989

Ryder Cup
West Virginia-Louisville
49ers-Eagles
Bucs-Saints

A FLIGHT TO THE FINISH

In a battle that's strictly for the birds, the overachieving Orioles seek to wing past the underachieving Blue Jays

Toronto Blue Jay third baseman Kelly Gruber stood in the on-deck circle at the beginning of the sixth inning in Milwaukee last Saturday and looked around, bewildered. "The whole time I was out in the field in the bottom of the fifth, I was thinking, I'm up second next inning," Gruber said later. "But there was no one else up there to lead off, and [Brewers pitcher Don] August was ready to start the inning. I heard my teammates yelling for me to get a hit—or something. So I went up to the plate."

This is an article from the Oct. 2, 1989 issue

August delivered the first pitch of the inning to Gruber. Ball one. Blue Jay shortstop Tony Fernandez, who was watching from his seat in the dugout, turned to centerfielder Lloyd Moseby and said, "I think I'm supposed to be up, not Gruber." Good thinking. Tony. With eight games left in the regular season and Toronto in a fight to the finish with the Baltimore Orioles, Fernandez had forgotten to go to bat, and no one—least of all, Gruber—had stopped Gruber from illegally hitting in Fernandez's place. (Since Gruber made an out, the Brewers didn't protest the mistake.) "We're not just guilty of stupidity," said Blue Jay pitcher Mike Flanagan after the 4-1 loss, "we're guilty of tupidity," which, in Flanaganese, is the plural of the word.

Down the stretch, the race for the division title in the American League East, which hits the finish line in Toronto's SkyDome this weekend with a three-game series between the Blue Jays and the Orioles, has been something less than the Kentucky Derby of baseball. On Sunday, the division's two best (least mediocre?) teams were beaten by a couple of pitchers off the release heap named Tom Filer and Chuck Cary. Toronto, which lost three of its six games for the week, lost to the Brewers Sunday after Fernandez and Moseby misplayed balls in the sixth inning, igniting a tie-breaking rally. Baltimore, meanwhile, lost two out of three at home over the weekend to the fifth-place New York Yankees. As a result, the Orioles (84-72) headed to Milwaukee and Toronto for their final six games still a game behind the Jays.

In a divisional race that has defied convention from the beginning, it somehow makes sense that the race would end in Canada at a 21st-century stadium with a movable roof and a Hard Rock Cafe just beyond rightfield. Moreover, the series at SkyDome (assuming the Orioles stay within three games of the Jays) will mark the first time two black managers have ever dueled one another in a pennant showdown. Cito Gaston got to this point by rallying the Blue Jays from a 12-24 start; he did it by calming his players and organizing his deep, talented bullpen. Frank Robinson, who opened spring training with a team that lost 107 games in '88, has molded a young, what-me-worry Oriole squad into a superb defensive unit.

Toronto and Baltimore could hardly contrast more starkly. The Blue Jays are perceived as the underachievers, the club that blew a three-games-to-one lead in the 1985 playoffs to the Kansas City Royals and a 3½-game division lead in '87 by losing their last seven games. In '89, they are the team with everything to lose. "We constantly get asked about '85 and '87, so, of course, we think about the past," says Moseby. "We think we're better off for having gone through it, but all around us people are saying, 'If they blow this one....' It's not the most positive atmosphere."

On the flip side, the Orioles are the overachievers, the team with nothing to lose. Their last regular-season home game of the year was on Sunday, and most of the crowd of 51,173 stayed to give their O's a three-minute standing ovation when the team returned to the field following a 2-0 loss to the Yankees. "I'm here to thank them for the entire year," said Chuck Friedel of Columbia, Md. "I can't thank them enough."

"It helps alleviate pressure when everyone says, 'You're not supposed to be in first place to begin with,' " says Baltimore shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. "It's an entirely different situation for Toronto."

Indeed it is. Consider the view from each clubhouse on Sunday. In Milwaukee, Blue Jay pitcher John Cerutti said, "We've got a one-game lead with a week to go, and I hope we can hold on." In Baltimore, the Orioles' ace reliever Gregg Olson, a 22-year-old rookie, said, "I think of it all coming down to the last weekend in Toronto, and I say, 'This is perfect.' "

Despite the disappointment of a 1-for-3 weekend, Baltimore took to the road carrying the positive memory of an episode that typified its unlikely season. Squeezed between the losses to New York was a 10-2 win on Saturday, a victory that turned on a play described by Ripken as "the way we win." As Oriole outfielder Stanley Jefferson—obtained from the Yankees in July—slid home in the fourth inning, New York catcher Don Slaught failed to tag him, but Jefferson's slide had carried him wide of the plate and six feet past it. When plate umpire Mark Johnson gave no signal, Jefferson realized he had missed home. Slaught, now holding the ball, stood between Jefferson and the plate. "I remembered my shadowboxing days in the Bronx," said Jefferson, who let Slaught make the first move, sidestepped the lunging tag, dropped to his knees and scrambled to the plate. Safe. "That's us," said Jefferson. "We find any way to score."

Robinson and pitching coach Al Jackson have masterfully manipulated what amounts to a four-man pitching staff: Jeff Ballard and rookie Bob Milacki starting, Mark Williamson in the middle and Olson closing. Robinson has had to juggle the third and fourth spots in the rotation; from Aug. 17 through Sunday, Baltimore was 16-4 with Ballard and Milacki starting, 5-11 with anyone else. As for the regular players, Ripken, the Orioles' lone star, finally has started to show the strain of playing every inning of every game for the last eight years: He was 1 for 9 in the Yankee series and at week's end had not driven in a run since September 15. "He's struggling and we're still winning," said Robinson. "That shows something."

"The Orioles are a lot better than anyone gives them credit for," says Oakland A's coach Merv Rettenmund. "They're so good defensively, especially in the outfield, that they take away the big innings. You have to hit it out on them to beat them."

Says Kansas City coach Bob Schaefer, "They're as dominating a defensive team as I've ever seen. They really play the game right."

"No team has more players who know how to play the game to win," says one American League catcher. "[Craig] Worthington, [Steve] Finley, Olson and Milacki may be rookies, but they play like they've been around for 25 years. Worthington's already one of the most respected players in the league with the game on the line."

Toronto, on the other hand, has carried the "talented" label for years, but there's a difference between having the tools and having the ability to use them. "It has nothing to do with a manager," says one Blue Jay. "This organization doesn't discipline or teach in the minors. You can't teach on the major league level, and stats don't show the countless times outfielders overthrow cutoff men or double plays are messed up."

Such flaws in the fundamentals go a long way toward explaining the fact that entering the season's final week Toronto was 20-2 against the league's two worst teams, the Detroit Tigers and the Chicago White Sox, and only 65-69 against everyone else.

After Saturday's loss to the Brewers, Gaston, when questioned about the Fernandez gaffe, told reporters, "I take full responsibility." Gruber blamed himself, but Fernandez responded to questions by shaking his head and whistling O Canada. Toronto utilityman Tom Lawless tried to make the best of the situation on Sunday morning when the lineup was posted in the clubhouse. Lawless read each name aloud: "Lloyd, you're leading off, which means Junior is in front of you, Mookie behind you, got it?" Lawless made Fernandez stand in front of the card and study it. It worked, to a degree. Fernandez was the leadoff hitter in the fifth inning. This time he remembered to bat, and he doubled, starting a two-run rally to tie the game 2-2.

But in the sixth, after Filer had walked two straight batters, Fernandez swung at the first pitch, which was out of the strike zone, and popped out to shallow left. "No one should ever throw strikes to us in crucial situations, because we'll swing at anything," said one Blue Jay afterward.

In the Brewers' half of the inning, Moseby broke the wrong way on Robin Yount's routine fly ball, and it dropped in for a single. Then with two on and two out, Fernandez failed to charge a Greg Vaughn two-hopper, ignored the force at second and tried a sidearm flip across the diamond. Vaughn beat the throw and the bases were loaded. Cerutti couldn't get the required fifth out of the inning and gave up a three-run double to Joey Meyer. The Brewers went on to win 8-3.

Nevertheless, Toronto entered the final week in first place and as the favorite to win the division title for one reason: its pitching staff, especially its talented bullpen. The relievers, including Tom Henke, Dave Wells, Duane Ward and Jim Acker, have more strikeouts than the starters in almost 500 fewer innings. In addition, the Jays' ERA is .39 of a point better than Baltimore's. However, if the championship hangs in the balance this weekend, the Blue Jays will have to outpitch not only the demons of seasons past but also a team from Baltimore that won't beat itself and has nothing to lose.

PHOTODAVID WALBERGWhen he remembered to take his turn at bat, Fernandez had no trouble on the base paths.TWO PHOTOSJERRY WACHTERBallard is one of the many reasons that fans in Baltimore are delighted with the Orioles.PHOTOJERRY WACHTERBack in the spring, Robinson and Gaston (right) hardly figured to be dueling in the fall.PHOTODAVID WALBERG[See caption above.]PHOTORONALD C. MODRAToronto catcher Ernie Whitt and his muddled mates let the Brewers slip past for two wins.