This time around, Blue Jays can withstand pressure

Ken Rosenthal

August 27, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

Toronto Blue Jays general manager Pat Gillick should be a leading candidate for Executive of the Year. Instead, his team is again drawing ridicule for blowing a seemingly insurmountable division lead.

It took the Jays six painful weeks to lose their eight-game edge in the AL East -- a slow burn compared to their fabled 1987 collapse, when they surrendered a 3 1/2 -game lead to Detroit with six to play.

The Blow Jays never cease to amaze, but this team is different. The fact that it is now tied with Detroit for first place does not reflect any great character defect. It merely shows yet again how the best-laid baseball plans can go awry.

Eleven of Toronto's current 25 players were not even with the club last season to lose a 1 1/2 -game lead to Boston in the final week. Gillick dissolved that group over the winter, and continues tinkering to this day. The New Jays are merely the best team in the AL East.

It hasn't looked that way lately, but two dramatic weekend victories over New York and last night's 5-2 triumph over the Orioles indicate that the Jays are regaining their momentum -- and just at the right time, judging by their schedule.

Tonight they play their fifth of 17 straight games against the Yankees, Orioles and Cleveland, the bottom three teams in the division. They already are finished with Detroit, Boston and Milwaukee. Their final 23 games are against the powerful AL West.

This obviously is the wrong year to be the swing team, and the schedule likely will prevent the Jays from opening a wide margin, Still, it's difficult to imagine anyone beating them, particularly Detroit, which has the highest ERA in the majors.

So, why aren't they running away?

Because, unlike in previous years, their success is based almost entirely on their pitching. Since July 19, their team ERA has risen from 3.09 to 3.56 -- still lowest in the AL, but not good enough for a team that ranks 13th in runs scored, ahead of only Cleveland.

The Jays are losing games 3-2 they earlier won 2-1. Gillick restructured the team around pitching and defense. Even with three dynamic additions -- centerfielder Devon White, second baseman Roberto Alomar and rightfielder Joe Carter -- the lineup is not as imposing as in the past.

At worst, the blockbuster deal that sent first baseman Fred McGriff and shortstop Tony Fernandez to the Padres for Alomar and Carter qualifies as a push. Problem is, the Jays also lost George Bell to free agency. They don't miss his outfield defense and boorish personality. They do miss his bat.

John Olerud, 23, is now the regular first baseman, and the Jays believe he eventually can match Bell's run production, with Carter already accounting for McGriff's. In the meantime, Gillick keeps swinging deals. He traded for Cory Snyder, but that didn't work out, so he tried again, getting Candy Maldonado.

His No. 1 starter, Dave Stieb, hasn't pitched since May 22 because of a lower back strain, and probably is out for the season. Undaunted, Gillick acquired Cleveland's Tom Candiotti, a potential free agent, for outfielders Mark Whiten and Glenallen Hill.

All this, from a guy who once went 610 days without making a trade. "For so many years people called him 'Stand Pat,' " said Buck Martinez, a former Blue Jay who now follows the club as a TV commentator for The Sports Network. "Now all of a sudden he's 'Trader Pat.' "

"He's made every move possible," Martinez said. "Every time they've needed something he's gotten it. He's to be commended. He could have said, 'Listen, we're going to have 50,000 people [in the SkyDome] no matter what we do.' "

Still, for all Gillick's efforts, the Jays haven't dominated a division that appears every bit as weak as it did in '89, when the overachieving Orioles missed winning the title by just two games (Toronto won that year, and also in '85).

Stieb isn't the only one hurt. Lefthanded reliever Ken Dayley has been out since June 12 with an injured forearm. And manager Cito Gaston, of all people, has spent the last week in the hospital with chronic back pain. Hitting coach Gene Tenace is 3-3 in his place.

Earlier, closer Tom Henke missed more than a month with a groin injury, third baseman Kelly Gruber 47 games with a broken thumb. Reliever Mike Timlin recently spent time on the 15-day disabled list with an elbow problem. He struck out five in two innings last night.

"I don't ever get really frustrated," said Gillick, the club's GM since its inception in 1976. "I just sort of have the attitude that you do the best you can. You put them out there, but you can't play for them. Then if it doesn't work out, you've got to do something different."

Which, of course, is what happened last winter. Gillick stole White from California, made the big trade with San Diego, signed free agents Dayley and Pat Tabler. He looked downright brilliant when the Blue Jays took their eight-game lead in mid-July.

Now the team finds itself in another race, and just like that, people see it as the latest chapter in their flawed history. The Blow Jays are always good for a laugh, but this team is different. Check back in October: The end result will be, too.

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