The deal came down a few minutes before 11 o'clock last
night in the visitors' clubhouse at Memorial Stadium. The Toronto Blue Jays stood in their cleats and uniforms and watched on a television screen as the Boston Red Sox collected one, two, three outs in the ninth inning.
The Blue Jays had this moment to themselves, their clubhouse still closed to reporters. The big room smelled of sweat and ointments, and it was silent. No one threw a chair. No one cursed, at least not above a whisper. The players turned from the television and lined up and ate the dinner a caterer had provided. Barbecue. Perfect.
There wasn't much to say once the reporters were allowed in. What could one say that the standings didn't? The Blue Jays had lost a game they had to win, the Orioles skewering their pTC postseason hopes with a 6-3 win. They were now two games behind the Red Sox with two to play. Barbecue.
The manager sat in his office and spoke in a soft, deep monotone. "We'll come back out here tomorrow and see if we can get some help," Cito Gaston said. "If Boston loses two and we're lucky enough to win two here, who knows, we'll see. But it looks pretty bad right now."
The players had awoken yesterday morning understanding that the day held such a possibility. They also had known that, if it was a very good day, they could be tied for first place by the time their heads hit the pillow. Such is life when a pennant race reaches the final days of the season. The days are not for sane men, full of sudden changes and wildly divergent possibilities, good and bad. And, it turned out, this had been a very bad day.
The players milled around, reconciling their plight. They talked in cliches and complained that they should have scored more runs off the Orioles' starting pitcher, Jose Mesa. Kelly Gruber, the Jays' third baseman, sat on a couch eating his, yes, barbecue. His face was pallid, his eyes bordering on vacant.
"Mesa was pretty fortunate to get away with what he did," Gruber said. "We hit the ball pretty hard off him and had him shaking his head out there. But a lot of balls didn't fall. We had the lead for the first six innings and you looked up and we only had three hits. We should have had more."
As Mesa had warmed up before the top of the sixth, the scoreboard had delivered news from Boston: The Red Sox's lead over the Chicago White Sox was up to 3-0. The Jays understood that their margin of error had been pared from a thread to nothing, but they still could take a nervous comfort in their 3-1 lead.
They had started the game with two runs in the first, making the statement they had wanted about not letting the Red Sox get away easily, and with the Orioles stranding the usual complement of runners, their lead was holding up. But then David Wells, the Blue Jays' starter, walked Bill Ripken to begin the bottom of the sixth.
For some reason, this produced a visible stirring among the more than 24,000 in the crowd. Maybe they could tell that Wells was tiring. Maybe they knew that the Red Sox were destined to win after Jeff Stone, one of the Zer-O's from 1988, had delivered the winning hit in a critical game last weekend. Maybe they were just bored. In any case, they perked up. Just in time.
The next batter, Mike Devereaux, lined a 2-1 pitch into the stands behind left field. Suddenly, the game was tied. That margin of error was looming large. One out later, Randy Milligan bounced a single. Jeff McKnight advanced him with a ground out to third. Up came Bob Melvin with a chance to break the tie. His sharp single to left gave the Orioles a 4-3 lead.
In Boston, where they keep track of such things, they will remember the names. They will remember Devereaux, Melvin. They will remember Mesa, who wound up the winning pitcher after 7 2/3 strong innings. They will remember that Gaston was second-guessed for leaving Wells in the game after Devereaux's home run. Yes, he will hear about that through the winter.
In any case, the Orioles put the game away with a resoluteness not often shown this year. Bill Ripken singled home another run in the seventh to make it 5-3. Sam Horn hit a homer in the eighth: 6-3. Gregg Olson came on in the ninth with vintage curveballs that spun home with the message "forget it."
With the Jays down to their last batter, Mookie Wilson, the scoreboard delivered the latest news from Boston: The Red Sox, having blown a 3-0 lead, had scored a run in the bottom of the eighth. The Blue Jays stared at the scoreboard, their world crumbling in a hurry, a matter of minutes. Wilson struck out and they filed into the clubhouse to watch the Red Sox close out the win. A very bad day, indeed.
It had been 366 days since the Jays put a disappointing ending on the Orioles' "Why Not?" season, but the Orioles' clubhouse was buoyant afterward, not so much because they had wrecked the Blue Jays' season, but because they had held up their end. They had not taken one jab and fallen. They had played one of the best games of the season in one of the biggest. "I didn't know they hated us that much," Gaston said, allowing himself the only smile in the room.