Guzman, Jays crowd around, meet challenge

October 10, 1991|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Evening Sun Staff

MINNEAPOLIS -- It was supposed to be a war of nerves. The high decibel noise level of the Metrodome coupled with the home-field advantage against a raw rookie and a team not noted for late-season excellence.

It was the kind of advantage the Minnesota Twins were banking on to take a 2-0 lead in the American League Championship Series across the border to Toronto's SkyDome.

There were times when it appeared the Blue Jays were intent on having a team meeting at the pitcher's mound every inning. If ever a team looked like it was suffering from a bad case of jitters, it was the Toronto Blue Jays.

In the very first inning, under very unusual circumstances (an 0-and-2 count on Kent Hrbek), catcher Pat Borders, pitching coach Galen Cisco and as many infielders as the rules allowed were gathered around starting pitcher Juan Guzman, who had walked two of the first three batters.

But it was a false alarm. The kid would win the battle of nerves.

Guzman lasted long enough to turn the game over to finishers Tom Henke and Duane Ward, the Blue Jays scored an impressive 5-2 win and headed home feeling very good about themselves.

"I've got to like our chances now, going home with a split," said Borders.

Especially after the first inning, when it seemed Guzman was losing control -- of the ball and himself.

"He will do that at times," manager Cito Gaston said of Guzman's early control problems. "It used to concern me, but not so much anymore. You have to be a little patient with him."

What about all of those conferences?

"We just wanted to make sure he was focused on what we wanted to do," said Borders. "To make sure he knew what we wanted to do with the pitch. There's only so much you can communicate with hand signals."

Still, a conference on the mound after two quick strikes to the Twins' top power threat, seemed like a strange time for both the catcher and pitching coach to show up on the mound. "He [Cisco] will do that sometimes," said Borders, "just to make sure of the pitch we want to throw and what we want to do in the situation."

What about Guzman being nervous?

"Juan doesn't pitch like a rookie," said Gaston. "He's played a lot of baseball. He's been in a lot of playoff games in the Dominican Republic. He's more like a veteran than a rookie."

The ALCS is a little different than playoffs in the Dominican Republic -- unless of course that's where your roots are planted.

"I've never seen Juan nervous," insisted Borders. "Yesterday [Tuesday's Game 1] all the nervousness was gone for me after the first couple of innings. The first time I went out, I guess I just wanted to check and see if he was the same way.

"He was fine. He came into the game just like any other. He was very calm. He came out with the same stuff he always has."

And, if Guzman kept Gaston on the edge of his seat occasionally, he also sent the Twins back to the dugout muttering to themselves. It wasn't like they hadn't seen this before.

That was part of the problem. Yesterday was the fourth time Guzman has faced the Twins this year. The only time they have beaten him was during the season's final weekend -- when they mustered all of one hit and one run in a three-inning tuneup for the playoffs.

"He pitched a fabulous game," said Minnesota manager Tom Kelly. "We had some big hitters up there at that time [the first inning] and they just didn't come through for us."

After the first of his many conferences on the mound, Guzman got Hrbek on a foul pop, then struck out Chili Davis. The Blue Jays had given him a National League run (single, stolen base, sacrifice, single) in the first inning and added two more in the third when Kelly Gruber's splintered bat single drove a stake in Minnesota's chances.

Guzman gave up a run on three squibbler hits in the third inning, but breezed into the sixth guarding a 3-1 lead. When he walked Chuck Knoblauch to lead off that inning, Gaston came to the mound and this time it was definitely to calm down his pitcher.

Nerves, however, had nothing to do with it. Guzman thought he had Knoblauch struck out and Gaston's visit was more to chat with plate umpire Mark Johnson than anything else.

Kirby Puckett followed with a ground ball to second baseman Roberto Alomar that would have been a double play had it not been for a great baserunning maneuver by Knoblauch. "I was upset and had to fight myself to calm down," admitted Guzman, whose 10-3 record this year included a 10-game winning streak that wasn't broken until his final, abbreviated, start.

When Hrbek again popped out, it looked like Guzman would survive another inning, but when he walked Davis and gave up a single through the middle to Brian Harper, Gaston brought Henke in for the most important pitch of the game.

It wasn't the fastball Shane Mack was looking for, however, and the end result was a weak tap back to the mound. It was the last chance the Twins would have.

The Blue Jays didn't exactly rough up Kevin Tapani. They left broken bats all over the field in the third inning, and came away with two runs.

In the eighth, a pair of walks, one by Tapani the other by reliever Steve Bedrosian, finished the Twins. A single by Alomar and a sacrifice fly by Joe Carter were enough to send the Blue Jays home all even in the series.

With the next three games at the SkyDome, that's enough to make the odds swing in favor of Toronto.

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