Separated by 250 miles of canadian farmland and two games in the American League East standings, the Toronto Blue Jays and the Detroit Tigers joined battle at Tiger Stadium last weekend for three late-summer games that had the feel of a fall classic. It was the last meeting of the season between the division's "swing" team (the first-place Blue Jays, who will face only American League West teams after Sept. 8) and baseball's swing team (the surprising Tigers, who make the old Lumber Company look like a matchstick outfit), and while the series almost came to bare knuckles, it was settled by knuckleballs. No ground was given by Toronto; in fact, after winning Sunday's hot-tempered finale 4-2, the Blue Jays flew back across the border with a three-game lead, a small chunk of momentum, and their confidence intact for the homestretch.
As Toronto manager Cito Gaston put it before Friday's opener, "It's an important series, if for nothing else than up here." Pointing a finger at his temple, Gaston conjured up images of the Jays' breakdown in 1987, when the Tigers came from 3½ games behind with seven to play. The Tigers won the division by sweeping the Blue Jays in Detroit in the season's final three games.
Not only were the Jays back in the Motor City on an all-too-reminiscent skid, having dropped seven of their last eight, but they also had to deal with the last-stand pressure created by the schedule.
To bend the Blue Jays' minds even further, Toronto was taking on a team that not even Magnum, P.I., in his Tiger thinking cap could have figured for a pennant race. A second-division pick by most prognosticators, Detroit this season had used 18 pitchers, including 11 different starters, going into the series. Opponents were batting .287 and scoring 4.77 earned runs a game, both league worsts, against Detroit pitching. On offense, the Tigers will flail (last in team batting, first in strikeouts), scrap (first in walks, last in hitting into double plays) and bomb away (first in homers, first in runs), but all the while they will hang in there—especially in cozy Tiger Stadium, where they had the best home record in the majors (39-22). Like its huge cleanup hitter, Cecil Fielder, Detroit is a club that would look normal only in a fun-house mirror. "This is a very strange way to make up a baseball team," said Tiger manager Sparky Anderson, "but it's also a lot of fun, because we always feel we have a shot."
August 25, 1991
There also was the matter of the Blue Jay fans, a restless bunch despite Toronto's two first-and two second-place finishes in-the last six years. On July 30, The Toronto Sun ran a call-in poll that posed the question "What's wrong with the Jays?" At the time, the team had a six-game lead. Among the responses: "The players' thick gold chains are wearing them down," and "It's the Sparky Anderson syndrome. They grew up knowing Sparky's success and feel threatened."
The Tigers won Friday's game 5-2, but the Jays bounced back with a 7-5 win on Saturday. That split just about mirrored each team's support in the stands. The series drew 138,544 fans—the most at Tiger Stadium since that fateful weekend in '87—and the visitors from Ontario matched the locals in mass, volume and, in some cases, density. The hybrid turnout on Saturday night saw several people arrested and more than 50 thrown out, not to mention smoke rising from the bleachers because of overheated concession equipment.
On Sunday afternoon, the combustion took place on the field. After giving up solo homers to Devon White and Roberto Alomar on two of his first three pitches, Detroit starter Bill Gullickson, who entered the game with 15 wins, blazed a 1-0 fastball that glanced off Joe Carter's helmet. "I tried to get him off the plate, and the ball got away from me," said Gullickson. Said Carter, "If he says he wasn't throwing at me, he's a liar."
Carter got up, took three steps toward the mound and then stopped cold, aware that he could face ejection if he charged any farther. "This time of year there are certain guys you can't lose," said Carter.
That was a shrewd move by a player who in years past could enter a pennant race only with a ticket. Acquired from the San Diego Padres in the off-season, Carter leads the Jays in batting (.292 through Sunday), homers (28) and RBIs (88). Mostly, though, he simply leads. Says pitcher Tom Candiotti, "When the game's on the line and things get tough, even in the clubhouse, he carries us."
With Detroit catcher Mickey Tettleton holding him from behind in a bear hug, Carter screamed at Gullickson and gestured toward him with his bat. Then Carter tried to free himself of Tettleton. The two began to twirl around, and both benches poured onto the field. No punches were thrown, but there was at least one memorable exchange. The 57-year-old Anderson had latched both hands onto one of Carter's biceps, at which point White raced over and said, "Sparky, get out of here before you get hurt."
Anderson: "Thanks, I'm O.K."
White: "I'll stay right here."
Said Anderson later, "That's a tremendous young man."
Tempers cooled, Gullickson was ejected, and thanks to the near-rumble on Trumbull, Candiotti, the Toronto starter, had to wait a half hour to throw his first knuckleball. In June, Toronto traded four players to get the 33-year-old Candiotti from the lowly Cleveland Indians, a deal that, according to Anderson, "locked up the division" for the Blue Jays. However, a lack of support seems to have followed Candiotti from Cleveland. Although he entered the game with a league-leading 2.38 ERA, his record stood at 9-11. "This is the craziest year," he said on Saturday. "I don't think I can ever recall pitching this well—there are only four games I shouldn't have won out of 23 starts. I don't know. Maybe it's more important when you pitch than how you pitch."
Both mattered on Sunday, and Candiotti came through. He left after seven innings with a 4-2 lead, having allowed just three hits. "The only time I felt good against him was my third time up," said Tiger first baseman Dave Bergman, "and then I grounded into a double play."
Candiotti even weathered a second delay of the game, in the third inning, when a top-heavy blonde bounced onto the field and headed toward Blue Jay first baseman John Olerud, who promptly ran away from her. "He did a sidestep and then she couldn't get her weight shifted to follow him," said Toronto reliever Tom Henke, who fanned the side in the ninth inning to get his second save of the series and his 28th of the year.
Another jolting sight had greeted the Blue Jays on the field before Friday night's opener: umpire Joe Brinkman dusting off home plate. In his 1989 book, Catch: A Major League Life, former Toronto catcher Ernie Whitt branded Brinkman "incompetent." Since then the Jays had been 2-8 in games in which Brinkman called balls and strikes. But Toronto had nothing to complain about through seven innings on Friday. Blue Jay lefty Jimmy Key and former Toronto lefty John Cerutti pitched with symmetrical effectiveness, giving up only two runs apiece. With the league's best corps of relief arms on their side and Tiger stopper Mike Henneman suffering from soreness in his throwing shoulder, the Blue Jays seemed to hold the upper hand going into the closing innings. "You get to their bullpen, forget about it," Anderson would say later, blowing smoke while puffing on a pipe in his wood-paneled office. "You're not going to beat them there."
In the bottom of the eighth, Detroit's Milt Cuyler slapped a one-out single to left and went to second when Candy Maldonado bobbled the ball. Enter Toronto righthander Duane Ward to face switch-hitting Tony Phillips. Although Phillips has played seven positions this season, he's hardly a fill-in; his 15 homers, fifth best on Detroit, would have placed him second on the Blue Jays. Phillips's newfound pop is due in part to time he spent in the off-season working with Chicago White Sox batting coach Walt Hriniak. By streamlining Phillips's mental checklist at the plate, Hriniak helped raise Phillips's average to .302. "It's just a little bitty thing to stop me from going bad," says Phillips. "When I'm going well, I tell myself to keep my head down, and when I'm going bad, I tell myself to keep my head down. So it's real simple."
Head firmly down, Phillips ripped an RBI single to center to touch off a three-run inning. Dan Gakeler, a seven-year minor league free agent with a 7.17 major league ERA, sealed Cerutti's first win as a starter in more than a year with the first save of his career. Gakeler got Maldonado on a ground-ball double play before getting Kelly Gruber on a called third strike for the final out. Gruber stormed toward the dugout and slammed his helmet to the ground, where it rolled to Brinkman's feet. Toronto's bullpen had been trumped by a wide-eyed rookie. Was that a whiff of some spilled champagne, vintage 1987, in the Detroit air?
"I never thought I'd be in this situation," said the 27-year-old Gakeler afterward. "When I was watching John warm up before the game, Mike Henneman told me, 'If you get the chance tonight, you'd better do the job, because we want to be playing in October.' Now here I am, in the big leagues, one game out of first. What do you think of that?"
Said Key, "We're in first place, that's all I know. Certainly we're not out of it by any means."
On such sure footing, Toronto headed into Saturday's game. Detroit, on the other hand, sort of sauntered in. "Nobody here struts around, nobody's a superstar," said Gullickson. "We've got young players, plus veterans who have had good years and bad years, so they know how to keep on an even keel. This team is all about makeup. That's the secret."
The Tigers' most obvious asset is their power, and it especially stands out when measured against the Blue Jays' often punchless offense. "If pitchers have their stuff, sometimes they can get through our lineup pretty quick," says Candiotti. The fourth through ninth hitters in the Toronto lineup had a total of 163 RBIs, six fewer than Detroit's fourth-and fifth-place batters, Fielder (100) and Tettleton (69).
However, the bottom two thirds of Toronto's order flexed its muscle on Saturday, driving in six runs, including solo shots by Olerud and Maldonado and two run-scoring hits by Pat Borders. When Fielder tried to pump up Detroit with a drive to right in the fifth, Carter crashed into the nine-foot-high fence and snagged the ball, converting what would have been a three-run homer into a sacrifice fly. That was Fielder's lone RBI of the series.
But the long ball is what makes the Tigers so entertaining: Although Detroit used such pitchers as Gakeler, Scott Aldred (who was sent down to Triple A on Sunday), Paul Gibson and Jeff Kaiser (he made his Tiger debut on Sunday after being released by the Milwaukee Brewers organization)—who had a combined 5.77 ERA in 126‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings—no Blue Jay lead was safe. Lou Whitaker's three-run blast in the sixth cut Toronto's lead to 6-5. The Tigers worked 11 walks, and only some stout relief by Bob MacDonald and Henke kept the Jays in first place. "This gets a lot of pressure off our backs," said Carter. "All those people talking about things that happened before."
Carter is one of the new Jays. Only nine from that '87 team are still with Toronto. The '91 club may be younger and less potent, but it has loads of speed and plenty of pitching. If Toronto can hold its lead while playing American League East also-rans over the next two weeks, then facing American League West teams in its final 23 games could be an advantage. While Detroit and the third-place Boston Red Sox meet five more times, neither will have a chance to pick up ground by beating the Jays. On the other hand, if Toronto stumbles, the schedule will work against the Jays, because they can't make up ground on the Tigers or Red Sox by playing them.
Last weekend was the first semblance of a stretch drive for most of the Jays, and they didn't seem daunted by the prospect of a close race. "This is exciting," Candiotti said before his start. "This is what I always envisioned it would be."
The Tigers, meanwhile, will continue to slug along. "There's no way in god's world I thought we'd even be playing .500," says Anderson. "The pressure's all on them."