TORONTO -- The significance seemed to be lost on the polite crowd that populated SkyDome last night, but this was playoff baseball at regular-season prices, thanks to the scheduling foible of a 14-team league.
The Minnesota Twins could be just a day or two away from the American League West title. The Toronto Blue Jays are looking more and more like American League East champs, with the Boston Red Sox beginning to fade. Yet here were the Twins and Blue Jays, facing off in the first of six head-to-head meetings over the final 10 days of the season.
The Blue Jays are the swing team in the American League -- the club that plays the final month against the other division. They will close the season with three games in Minnesota, and perhaps stay there to begin the American League Championship Series two days later. Strange but true.
Last night, they won the first game of the home-and-home playoff preview, breaking open a close game with four runs in the eighth inning to score a 7-2 victory before 50,326.
Despite the loss, the Twins' magic number fell to two last night when the Seattle Mariners rallied to beat the Chicago White Sox, 10-8. The Twins can clinch the division if they win today and the White Sox lose tonight.
The game was far more important to the Blue Jays, who took advantage of the promising arm of rookie pitcher Juan Guzman to keep the second-place Red Sox at arm's length.
Guzman (9-2) gave up just three hits over eight innings to out-duel 16-game winner Kevin Tapani and tie a club record with his ninth consecutive victory. Right-hander Duane Ward finished up to record his 20th save and push the Blue Jays' division lead to 3 1/2 games.
Late-season acquisition Dave Parker drove in a run with a double in the fourth and set up the go-ahead run with another two-base hit in the seventh. Pinch runner Mookie Wilson replaced him at second base and scored the tie-breaking run, then came up in the eighth to deliver a game-breaking three-run double of his own off reliever Terry Leach.
Not a bad way to welcome manager Cito Gaston back to the dugout after more than a month flat on his injured back.
Gaston is still feeling the effects of the disk injury that put him in the hospital for 10 days in late August, but he came back last night to reassume command from coach Gene Tenace, who was a very respectable 19-14 during his 33-game absence.
"I would say I feel about 75 percent," Gaston said before the game. "I'm not quite 100 percent, but I'm better. Right now, I'm taking some therapy and I hope to rest it after the season. If that doesn't do it, we might have to do something else."
The timing of his return was curious, but it apparently had nothing to do with the arrival of the Twins. Gaston wanted to join the club on its recent West Coast road trip, but his back was not up to the charter flights. The Blue Jays returned Wednesday night and opened their final homestand of the regular season with last night's series opener.
Gaston did not look particularly comfortable on the bench, but he said that he intends to go the rest of the way with his team. He has managed the pain before.
"Unless something flares up again," he said. "I dealt with it for four months, but it finally got to the point where I was getting about five hours sleep a night. I hated to leave the team. But you can't make good decisions when you aren't sleeping at night."
He must have slept well, because every important decision he made was the right one. He sent Wilson into the game at a pivotal moment in the seventh inning and then called for the sacrifice bunt that moved him to third. Wilson scored on a foul ball down the left field line to break a 2-2 tie. Parker wouldn't have even tried.
Guzman took a no-hitter into the fourth before Twins catcher Brian Harper broke it up with a game-tying RBI single. He took a one-hitter into the sixth before Kirby Puckett delivered a one-out double.
"He's a quality pitcher," said Parker. "He's had success since the beginning of the year and when you have success you build confidence. I think he's going to be one of the best right-handers in the league."
The Blue Jays still have some winning to do before they make plans for the playoffs, but Gaston conceded that it would be tough to keep Guzman out of the playoff pitching rotation if Toronto ends up facing the Twins. Apparently, he has no problem with big-game pressure.
"He's done a great job for us," Gaston said. "He doesn't scare out there. Juan worked so hard to get here, he's not going to let that [pressure] stop him."
Guzman is making a late play for the American League Rookie of the Year award. He hasn't lost since he dropped a 8-4 decision to the Baltimore Orioles on June 15. But rookie honors still figure to go to Twins second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, who came in hitting .287 with 48 RBI and 23 stolen bases in 142 games.
AL East race
.. ..W ..L ..Pct ..GB
Toronto .86 .68 ..558 ..--
Boston ..82 .71 ..536 ..3 1/2
' Yesterday's results Toronto 7, Minnesota 2
Milwaukee 7, Boston 5
Toronto (8) -- Home (5): Sept. 28-29, Minnesota; Sept. 30-Oct. 1-2, California. Away (3): Oct. 4-6, Minnesota.
Boston (9) -- Home (6): Oct. 1-3, Detroit; Oct. 4-6, Milwaukee. Away (3): Sept. 28-30, Milwaukee.