Experience pays Jays big dividend

JOHN EISENBERG

October 19, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

ATLANTA -- At the end of the eighth inning, when the Braves were still ahead by a run and Jeff Reardon was heading to the mound for the customary close and the 51,000 in the stands were anxious to split the cool, clear night with another roar of celebration, Gene Tenace tapped Ed Sprague on the shoulder in the far corner of the Blue Jays' dugout.

Tenace is the Jays' dugout coach, the right-hand man to manager Cito Gaston. Sprague is a backup catcher, a 25-year-old still being weaned on the major-league game. His father was a pitcher in the bigs two decades ago, and now a scout for the Orioles in California. His kid can hit a little. More than a little.

"You're going to hit third this inning," Tenace said, relaying the message from Gaston.

Sprague hopped up from his seat and peeled off his blue jacket. Pinch hitting was not something he had done much in his career. Like most big leaguers, he had been a star since he was a kid. He played games, not watched them. Beginning this postseason, he had pinch hit exactly four times in the majors. And gotten three hits.

But he was a fledgling on a World Series team, and he was slowly getting accustomed to the idea. In the Jays' win over Oakland in the American League playoffs, he had twice pinch hit against Dennis Eckersley, and battled like crazy. Gaston liked what he saw.

As soon as Tenace walked away, Sprague went straight to Rance Mulliniks, the Blue Jays' reserve infielder and official oldest and wisest head. Sprague, who had spent most of the season in Triple-A, asked Mulliniks what to expect from Reardon, the majors' career save leader.

"What should I be looking for?" Sprague asked. Mulliniks told him about Reardon's famous high fastball.

"Reardon has a nice curveball, but he will throw you a fastball before it's all over," Mulliniks said, "and it's going to be a high fastball. He wants you to swing at that pitch. It's a tough, tempting pitch, and he has lived on it."

Sprague queried: "So what do I do with it?"

Mulliniks smiled. "Don't swing at it," he said. "If you're going to swing at a fastball, swing at one that's down in the strike zone."

Sprague turned back to the field and watched Reardon pitch to Pat Borders leading off the top of the ninth. The crowd was on its feet, roaring. All night, the game had seemed there for the Braves to win. They had taken an early lead and quickly reclaimed it when the Jays tied the score in the fifth. The Braves were three outs from taking a 2-0 lead in the Series.

Reardon's first pitch to Borders was a fastball. Two pitches later, Borders flew out to right. The next batter was another pinch hitter, Derek Bell. Again, Reardon's first pitch was a fastball. Standing in the on-deck circle, Sprague noticed the pattern. Bell worked the count full and walked.

Sprague strode to the plate looking for a fastball. Reardon had thrown first-pitch fastballs to both of the hitters before him. Sprague also was reminding himself that, if it was a fastball, not to swing at that high one.

He assumed his stance. Reardon glared in at catcher Damon Berryhill and delivered his pitch. Sprague saw the ball coming. A fastball. A fastball down in the strike zone. Perfect. Just perfect. He swung.

"When I looked up," he said later, surrounded by a mob of reporters, "I looked up right into the lights and I couldn't see a thing. I knew I had hit it well, but I didn't know what was happening. But then I got to first base and turned, and I saw Deion [Sanders] with his back to the field. And then the crowd got real quiet."

A crowd can't get any quieter. Sprague had hit a first-pitch home run to give the Jays a 5-4 lead, which held up. The last sight of the night was Jane Fonda standing by her seat, praying for another miracle that didn't come.

"It's a big win, a huge win," the Jays' Dave Winfield was saying in the clubhouse. "When Robbie Alomar hit that home run against Eckersley in the playoffs, we never looked back. Maybe the same thing is going to happen now in the Series."

A night before, it was Berryhill, another backup catcher, hitting a three-run homer to win the first game. In Game 7 of the Braves' series against the Pirates, it was Cabrera, a bullpen catcher, with a two-out game-winning single. Now, Ed Sprague.

"Is the secret to hitting success this postseason being a backup catcher?" someone asked Sprague.

He smiled. Suddenly, it was a night of a thousand smiles.

"You might be on to something there," he said.

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