TORONTO -- Take nothing away from the Minnesota Twins, but it was the losing team that made the strongest statement as the American League Championship Series concluded here yesterday.
The Toronto Blue Jays sent a clear message to the rest of thEastern Division that there is plenty of room at the top.
That might be overstating the obvious, but the team that oncappeared dominant is starting to show signs of cracking. When the Blue Jays coughed up a 5-2 lead en route to an 8-5 defeat at the hands of the Twins in the fifth and final game of the best-of-seven series, they left many unanswered questions.
Granted, the Twins were obviously the better team, but thadoes not obscure the fact that the Blue Jays were more an indication of the Eastern Division's weakness than they were a worthy representative.
By becoming the first team in the 23-year LCS to lose threhome games, the Blue Jays extended their division's five-year futility record. The Western Division champion has now won 19 of the last 22 ALCS games. Not since Boston escaped California's apparent 3-1 stranglehold in 1986 has an AL Eastern Division team advanced to the World Series.
But if there is no indication of imminent improvement, there is a ++ least ample evidence that there is no monopoly. This is the third time in the last seven years that the Blue Jays have been in the ALCS (they had to lose every game in the last week to avoid winning in 1987).
In this latest failure, the domination of the Blue Jays wacomplete. They were outpitched, outhit, outfielded and outmanaged.
When the humiliation was over, manager Cito Gaston noted thahis team always seems to come into these things with key injuries. Although that is a valid point, it doesn't totally explain why the Blue Jays can't finish the job once the advantage is theirs.
Twice, in Games 2 and 5, the Blue Jays had every opportunity tput the Twins away and didn't do it. They played very timidly on offense, station-to-station baseball, were shaky on defense and gave the general impression of a team unsure of its ability to get past the playoffs.
Indeed, the Blue Jays reacted to their elimination yesterday like team resigned to its fate, a team that knows its good enough to get this far, but doesn't really expect any more.
"In baseball, any team can have a bad week," said Gaston"That's what happened to us -- we had a bad week."
Centerfielder Devon White didn't try to explain anything. "Thewere the better team," he said. "We both came to play and we just got beat. I'm happy for them [the Twins]. This is the closest I've been to the World Series and I feel pretty happy about that."
When Gaston was asked if the latest failure will add to the BluJays' reputation as late-season washouts, he replied as though the results had nothing to do with it.
"I guess that depends on you guys [the media]," he said.
If the Blue Jays were incapable of capitalizing on opportunities, imust be said that the storybook Twins went for the jugular at every opportunity. Kirby Puckett laughed off suggestions his 1-for-7 start in the first two games represented a slump; Jack Morris continued to provide the pitching example expected when he was signed as a free agent; Mike Pagliarulo delivered the key hit of the series; Chuck Knoblauch was a revelation with the bat; and the bullpen was close to perfect.
Puckett went 8-for-14 in the last three games, hitting home runin the last two and driving in the winning run yesterday. He was named the ALCS Most Valuable Player.
"He can get 10 hits faster than anyone I've ever seen," saiTwins manager Tom Kelly, who is going to the World Series for the second time in five years.
Yesterday Puckett opened the scoring with a home run anfinished the Blue Jays with a two-out single that broke a 5-5 tie in the eighth inning. But it was Knoblauch who delivered the biggest hit of the day.
After the Blue Jays messed up a play at the plate, allowing one run to score, the rookie second baseman delivered a two-run double that tied the game in the sixth inning. "He doesn't play like a rookie," said Twins hitting coach Terry Crowley. "He plays big.
"You never have to tell him something twice," Crowley said of Knoblauch. "The word steady was made for him."
In victory, the Twins were very gracious, and overly sympathetic toward the Blue Jays. "What was so terrible about it?" Puckett asked when an unsolicited opinion of Toronto's performance was offered.
"Errors are part of the game. If guys knew they were going to throw the ball wild, they wouldn't throw. Those things happen. I've got a lot of friends over there and I feel sorry for them."
Morris, whose two wins would've been enough for the MVP award under normal circumstances, also praised his fallen opponents. "Every game was a war," he said. "They played us very tough all year [the Blue Jays won eight of 12 during the regular season]."