To the rest of the North American baseball world it looked this way: The Toronto Blue Jays had just broken the hearts of the little Orioles that could. By coming from behind in the eighth inning twice within 18 hours, the Jays had turned a stolen base, a wild pitch, a couple of walks, a bunt and a fly ball into tense 2-1 and 4-3 wins over Baltimore, America's underdog, to clinch the American League East title and move into the playoffs against the Oakland Athletics. Oriole reliever Kevin Hickey described it as "a kick in the stomach."
But in Toronto, after pitcher Tom Henke blew the division-winning strike past Baltimore's Larry Sheets on Saturday afternoon, the scarf-waving, horn-blaring celebration that erupted in the SkyDome and oozed across the city had an unmistakable sense of release and relief. "It's as if the curse has been lifted," said Henke. "[Toronto pitcher] Mike Flanagan always points out that the Orioles were up three games to one in the '79 World Series [and lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates], and then lost the division on the final day of the '82 season—and no one in Baltimore said, 'The Orioles blew it.' But ever since we were up three games to one in the 1985 playoffs [and lost to Kansas City], then lost [a 3½-game lead to Detroit] in the last week in '87, people here have felt that there is a curse on the Blue Jays."
"To win it this way—at home, head-to-head, games that ate at your heart—buries that 'choke' bull forever," said Toronto outfielder George Bell. "Now we can move on to the future and the A's. Not guilty, man. We proved it. There's a big weight off our backs. It should be more fun from now on."
The Blue Jays finally hoodoo'd the Hoodoo Man by outpitching Frank Robinson's dream weavers. In the series opener on Friday night, the O's Jeff Ballard exited in the eighth inning, holding onto a 1-0 shutout, only to watch as a curveball from rookie reliever Gregg Olson hit the dirt and rolled to the backstop, allowing the tying run to score from third. In the 11th inning, Toronto's Lloyd Moseby crushed a Mark Williamson fastball against the left-centerfield fence to score the winning run.
On Saturday, 29-year-old rookie Dave Johnson, who hadn't won since Aug. 26, was forced into service because Baltimore's scheduled starter, Pete Harnisch, had stepped on a nail while walking back to his hotel on Friday night. Johnson took a two-hitter and 3-1 lead into the eighth. However, with Olson unavailable after his 39-pitch effort the night before, Robinson turned first to Hickey and then to Williamson, who before the game had said, "I have nothing left." The Toronto rally culminated with Bell hitting a sacrifice fly to score Mookie Wilson with the winning run.
While the Baltimore bullpen ran out of luck and able bodies, Toronto's deep and talented relief staff made the difference. The Blue Jay starters, Todd Stottlemyre and Jimmy Key, pitched only nine innings between them in the two showdown games. But the bullpen—Jim Acker on Friday, Frank Wills on Saturday and Terminator Henke on both days—shut down Baltimore on four hits and no runs for 11 combined innings. "The bullpen has been the backbone of this team for the second half of the season," said Toronto manager Cito Gaston. "We've won a lot of gut-wrenching games, and the bullpen has held us in games until we could win them."
Gaston always tries to deflect attention from himself. "I'd be as happy today if I were a coach, because this is a special team thing," he said after Saturday's game. But the Blue Jays to a man recognize Gaston's role in revitalizing a team that was 12-24 when he took over on May 15. "When all that past stuff would get brought up or any of us would falter, we all knew he stood by us," said Moseby. "He let us be ourselves."
Being themselves has not always been pretty. Friday night was a Blue Jay low-light film unto itself. Defensively, they gave away three outs when Stottlemyre was pitching. Offensively, they gave away two with baserunning gaffes. "Those things are going to happen with us," said Gaston. "What's important is to keep the players aggressive. We're going to have some adventures, but the players cannot be afraid to make mistakes. I think that happened to us over the years."
When a man like Gaston, who was the Jays' batting coach and had no prior managing experience, takes over, one never knows if he can handle a pitching staff. But, says Flanagan, "Cito has a feel for pitching." Early in his tenure Gaston said, "The first thing we have to do is get Henke back in form and in the role of closer."
"I didn't throw well early in the season," says Henke, whose name came up in trade talks last winter and who had blown three save opportunities by May 2. "I wasn't getting much work, but that sounds like I'm blaming Jimy [Williams, Gaston's predecessor!, which I'm not. I just wasn't throwing well. A lot of people wondered if I'd lost it and was done. Cito knew all I needed was work to build my arm and fastball back up."
Under Gaston, Henke blew only one save opportunity in 19 tries. In fact, he allowed only eleven earned runs and struck out 110 batters in 81⅖ innings, finishing the regular season with numbers that prove he is far from done: an 8-3 record, 20 saves, and a 1.92 ERA. In the two innings he worked to win Friday's game, Henke struck out four. On Saturday he saved Wills's victory with a one-two-three ninth, including two strikeouts. "I'm as hot now as I've been in my entire career," Henke said.
Gaston has a setup staff for Henke similar to the one Oakland manager Tony La Russa uses to get to stopper Dennis Eckersley. Acker had two wins and a 1.59 ERA after arriving from the Braves on Aug. 24. David Wells had seven wins, a 2.40 ERA and nearly a strikeout an inning. Duane Ward had 15 saves and nipped Henke for the club strikeout lead with 122.
"Good bullpens like Oakland are well-ordered—and so is ours," said Henke as he focused on the playoffs. "And this time we're the underdogs. We've finally beaten off all the past, and for the first time since I joined this team, in '85, we've got nothing to lose."