Blue Jays back home, but Erickson in the way Toronto must face 20-win Twins pitcher

October 11, 1991|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Correspondent

TORONTO -- Much was made of the Minnesota Twins' first postseason loss at home on Wednesday. The Metrodome mystique melted away and was replaced by the matter-of-fact notion that the Toronto Blue Jays had taken charge of the American League Championship Series.

Nothing is that simple.

The Blue Jays have taken the best-of-seven playoff series home to SkyDome tied at a game apiece, but they will have to take 20-game winner Scott Erickson in Game 3 tonight to put the Twins at a serious disadvantage.

Erickson, the winningest pitcher in the American League this year, will face left-hander Jimmy Key in what could be the pivotal game of the series and what will be the biggest game of his life to date.

"I think this is a little different than anything I've faced before," Erickson said. "I pitched some pretty big games in college, but this is a different scope. Hopefully, it will be like any other game."

If it is, Erickson probably will win it. He became one of two American League 20-game winner on Saturday, when he shut out Toronto on four hits in six innings. He has won 25 of his past 33 major-league decisions, dating back to the 5-0 September in 1990 that guaranteed him a spot in this year's Minnesota rotation.

The Blue Jays can hope that the sellout crowd at SkyDome will rattle him, but Erickson has been in the spotlight all season. His league-high 12-game winning streak (April 21-June 24) made him the early favorite to win the American League Cy Young Award. He would have been the starting pitcher in the All-Star Game at SkyDome if a sore elbow had not forced him out of action for two weeks at midseason.

"I don't think this will bother him," manager Tom Kelly said. "He's was hounded by the media in the first half. Then he came back from the injury and he was hounded by the media in the second half. I'm proud of the way he handled it."

The elbow strain probably cost him Cy Young honors. He was 9-5 after coming back from the disabled list, but his 5.20 second-half ERA left Boston Red Sox ace Roger Clemens as the strongest candidate for baseball's most prestigious pitching honor.

Erickson slowly regained his arm strength and pitched very well in September, so the injury doesn't figure to be a factor tonight. If anything, Kelly said he came back from it a better pitcher than before.

"I think he has learned that he has to pitch instead of throw," Kelly said. "At the beginning of the season, the ball was moving and he could just throw it. He was letting it loose at 90-91 mph. When he's throwing at 85-86, where our people think he will throw in the future, he's going to have to pitch a little more."

Opinions vary. Erickson said that his velocity is back in the 90s and that he isn't throwing any differently than he did at the beginning of the season.

The Blue Jays have no basis for comparison, since they did not face him in the first half. He pitched against them only in his final two starts of the regular season and gave up just two runs over 14 innings.

"I've only seen him pitch one time, and that was at the SkyDome a couple of weeks ago," said Key, who is coming off a solid 16-12 performance during the regular season. "I was really impressed with his aggressiveness. He really throws the ball over the plate and challenges the hitters. He doesn't strike me as the type of pitcher that will beat himself. If he's on his game, he can be tough."

Key will be making his first start in 11 days. With the approval of manager Cito Gaston and pitching coach Galen Cisco, he chose not to give the Twins a chance to face him during the final regular season series at the Metrodome, foregoing a shot at his 17th victory of the year to pitch a simulated game on Sunday.

"It was my idea not to pitch against them," he said. "Mentally, more than anything else, it would do me good not to have to face their hitters a week later in a game that meant something. Cito and Galen agreed to let me do it my way."

Key threw 100 pitches in the bullpen on Sunday and threw on the side a couple of days later, but the decision to take himself out of the rotation will set him up for the second-guess of the postseason if he is not sharp tonight.

"Normally, I've had trouble in the past," he said. "I've been too strong. I couldn't find my release point and my control was off. So I tried something different this time, throwing a lot more. I don't foresee being too strong. If I am, it will be because of my intensity or the magnitude of the game."

The experience factor could work in his favor. He has made three previous postseason starts. Erickson, of course, will be making his postseason debut, but he'll have his personal catcher -- veteran Junior Ortiz -- behind the plate to keep him under control.

Ortiz doesn't play much, but he has worked so well with Erickson that Kelly has made a habit of putting them together.

"Junior is very good to have back there," Erickson said. "He's been around for eight or nine years. He mixes my pitches very well. He also has a great arm, which takes some of the pressure off when there are runners on base."

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