After Blue Jays wilt in playoffs, Gaston feels the heat Critics bear down on Toronto manager

October 15, 1991|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Correspondent

TORONTO -- Cito Gaston should have stood in bed.

The Toronto Blue Jays manager came back from a painful disk injury to manage his team into -- and out of -- the American League Championship Series, but sympathy was in short supply after the Minnesota Twins left town with the pennant.

Who better to take the blame for another disappointing postseason appearance? The Blue Jays have been to the playoffs three times in the past seven seasons, but they will have to wait until at least next year to go to the World Series.

Perspective was in short supply after the Twins won all three games at SkyDome to take the series in five, and much of the frustration was focused on the manager who has taken them to the playoffs twice in the past three years. Even before the series was over, a made-for-TV banner was unfurled from the upper deck:

Cito

Blows

Series

It's never that simple, but you could make a case.

Inquiring Canadian minds wanted to know why the hottest starting pitchers on the club -- Juan Guzman and Jimmy Key -- appeared only once each in five games, while struggling Tom Candiotti started games 1 and 5.

They wanted to know why Gaston never met a sacrifice situation he didn't like. Why, for instance, he ordered Pat Borders to bunt with light-hitting Manuel Lee on deck in Game 3 after a seemingly nervous Scott Erickson walked the first two batters of the fifth inning. Why he would bunt with speedy Devon White at second base and hot-hitting Roberto Alomar at the plate in the first inning of Game 2.

They wanted to know why he would play the infield up with a 2-0 lead and a runner at third in the middle innings of Game 3. Why the club's most effective reliever -- Duane Ward -- came into the final game after rookie Mike Timlin allowed a game-tying, two-run double to Chuck Knoblauch in Sunday's finale, though there is some question who was making the pitching decisions at that point.

Gaston didn't lose the series, but he made enough questionable moves to leave himself open to every second-guesser from here to Saskatchewan.

"Well, he isn't running for them, and he isn't hitting for them," said general manager Pat Gillick, who came to the defense of his manager but stopped short of saying that Gaston will be rehired for 1992. "He [Gaston] might take the heat, but I'll say this: Tom Kelly isn't any better a manager this year, when he won, than last year, when he finished last."

The manager is only as good as the players, which explains why Gaston didn't look very good the past few days. Leading run-producer Joe Carter spent the lost weekend playing on a very sore right ankle. Relief stopper Tom Henke was limited in his availability because of a sore shoulder, which explains why Ward looked so fatigued in the decisive, three-run eighth inning Sunday.

"I've been here 10 years now," Gaston said, "and we always seem to come up with someone getting hurt. Just once, I would like to do it with everybody healthy down the stretch.

"If you go back, look over the entire year, we had a lot of guys out of the lineup. We didn't play with our regular lineup for a long time."

The Blue Jays complicated the series with seven errors and a variety of fundamental lapses, all of which reflected poorly on the manager, even though little of it was under his control. They scored only two of 14 runners in the extra-inning loss in Game 3. The Jays didn't win 91 regular-season games this year playing like that.

"Friday was pivotal," Gillick said. "We had our chances to score. Then we played terrible Saturday, and we didn't play as well as we're capable of playing [Sunday].

"To win, you have to deliver with two out, and you have to deliver with men in scoring position. We didn't do that."

Perhaps the Twins would have won anyway. It took them awhile to get their offense in gear, but it blossomed in a 17-run assault over the final two games. Starting pitcher Jack Morris overcame a bad cold to win twice. The bullpen worked 18 1/3 innings and never gave up an earned run. It wasn't close.

Perhaps the better team lost. The Blue Jays, after all, did win eight of their 12 games against the Twins during the regular season. But, in the Toronto clubhouse afterward, the players were short on excuses.

"This team was put together to win it all," said Key, who pitched well in his only appearance on Friday. "Pat Gillick did his best to bring in the best ballplayers. He did his job. We didn't do ours.

"In '89, we didn't have the team to beat Oakland, and, in '85, we were up, 3-1, and couldn't handle the pressure of the seventh game. But we should have gone to the World Series this year."

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