Jays evicting demons from their Blue past

JOHN EISENBERG

October 10, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

MINNEAPOLIS -- Not a single soul in the Toronto Blue Jays' clubhouse would admit it was the day they finally became the New Jays. That is, the day they finally succeeded in evicting the mean, maniacal poltergeists that have rented out office space in their lives for so long, causing so much consternation.

It is what happened, however, in the second game of the American League playoffs yesterday at the Metrodome. The Blue Jays said their usual prayer of hope: "oogabooga, please set us free from our oh so wretched past" (or something like that). This time it worked.

Poof. Goodbye ghosts. Goodbye Blue Jays, hello New Jays.

No one in the clubhouse would admit that such a radical change took place, of course. They wouldn't admit to a dismal history even if you showed them the pictures. (And brother, are there ever pictures.) "We never did choke all those years," third baseman Kelly Gruber said yesterday. Whew. Talk about a revisionist historian.

But anyway, please understand that they knew full well about the significance of their 5-2 defeat of the Minnesota Twins. How could they not? They had lost eight of their previous nine postseason games, including Game 1 Tuesday night. They were recognized as baseball's state-of-the-art October saps, and a loss yesterday would have spun them on their way to another bomb-out.

It looked like a gimme. The Twins had never lost a postseason game in their dome, and the usual collection of hankie-waving silence-busters were in place. But the New Jays showed up from the first pitch, making for a shocking afternoon. The dome was as quiet as, well, as quiet as Lake Woebegone.

Leading off the first inning, the Jays' Devon White singled, stole second and scored on a Joe Carter single. Three minutes, one-zip. Two innings later, White led off with a double and Roberto Alomar reached on a high bouncer, and Gruber drove them home. Three-zip.

New Jays? You bet. White, Alomar and Carter are new to the team this year. They weren't around for any of the biggest cave-ins since Rome. Gruber was, but as he pointed out, "I didn't play those years it happened, so it really didn't involve me." (Translation: You bet we blew it, but don't blame me.)

Meanwhile, the Jays' starting pitcher, Juan Guzman, was actually holding the lead. That was the biggest portending of the New Jays' arrival. In years past, the Jays' pitchers have treated postseason leads much as they might toxic waste. Pul-eeeze, take it away.

The Twins did manage runs in the third and sixth, cutting the lead to one, but don't miss the point: The customary lead-losing rally did not occur.

Guzman is another New Jay, a 24-year-old rookie who was so wild a year ago he could barely hit the catcher. He'd spent seven years in the minors accumulating mostly walks and wild pitches, but then suddenly found himself playing in the Dominican

Republic last winter, another routine piece of baseball magic.

He was the Jays' best pitcher after being called up in June -- and the Jays didn't even protect him in the major-league draft last year, proving the old saw that it's just as important to be lucky as good. "Hey, not even I expected I'd be as good as this," he said yesterday. "But I pitch with a lot of confidence now."

Does he ever. He throws breaking balls when he is behind in the count, and routinely runs fastballs in on veterans crowding the plate. And nerve? The ballyhooed hullabaloo inside the dome was just so much white noise in his ears.

If you're looking for the one piece of evidence that best sums up the Blue-to-New exchange, that is it: The dome didn't rattle the rookie at all. "They were loud," he said, "but they'd get quiet when you struck anyone out. In the Dominican they never stop. They just keep banging the drums."

Of course, it wasn't as if New Jays ruled the day entirely. Tom fTC Henke replaced Guzman in the sixth with runners on third and first, then gave way to Duane Ward in the eighth after escaping that jam. Henke and Ward are holdovers from the Blue days. But they were never at the center of the collapses, so they can make the same claim as "It wasn't me" Gruber.

Anyway, the point is that four of the nine regulars were not with the team last year, and neither were two of the top three starters. It was White, Alomar and Carter -- New, New and New -- who put together a two-run line in the seventh that busted open the game. Soon after, the aisles were full and the teams were heading for Toronto for the next three games.

It's entirely possible the Twins will still win the series, of course. They're a 95-win team with a passel of tough starting pitchers and big hitters. But they learned yesterday that they'll need to work up a sweat to win, that the Jays' new crowd won't just go belly-up and bark at the first swat of their noses.

They won some tough games on the West Coast in late September and held off the fading Bostons to win the division. Then they almost rallied from five runs down in Game 1, and stuffed it up the Twins' noses in yesterday's must-win. Their backbone was questioned in this very space just weeks ago, but one must admit it when one sees irrefutable evidence. It's going to take some getting used to, but it's true: The New Jays are here.

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