Blue Jays prepare to spread wings After soaring ahead, Toronto goes after title

September 24, 1993|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

TORONTO -- What was supposed to be a pivotal series that would set up the biggest week in the two-year history of Camden Yards has lost most of its appeal.

The New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays play the first of three weekend games here tonight. But, instead of a possible showdown for a division title, the series has taken on the %J appearance of the next-to-last elimination round.

As the Orioles try to survive against the Detroit Tigers at home, they are in the uncomfortable position of knowing that for each of the next three days they cannot gain ground on both of the teams ahead of them in the standings. They will close their season against these two teams (the Yankees on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, the Blue Jays Thursday through Sunday), but with only the faintest hope of regaining control of their destiny.

On the strength of a nine-game winning streak, the Blue Jays have nearly decided the American League East. While the Yankees and Orioles eagerly looked forward to these final 10 days, the Blue Jays took another route -- they went out and took care of business.

After last night's 5-1 victory over the Boston Red Sox, the Blue Jays' magic number is five to eliminate both the Yankees and Orioles. Any combination of Toronto wins and losses by the second-place team totaling that number would give the Blue Jays a third straight division title.

The only hope for either the Yankees or Orioles is that both teams sweep against the Blue Jays. That would enable them to determine the lone remaining contender during their three-game series next week.

But those thoughts are far removed from the Blue Jays. Instead they are thinking about the clinching party. Manager Cito Gaston is predictably mum about such things, being a certified member of the one-at-a-time club, but there is no doubt his players are preparing for a champagne explosion -- soon.

"It would be more fun [to clinch] at home," second baseman Roberto Alomar said. "But wherever we win, it's going to be fun."

Because their last three home games are this weekend, it would take an improbable scenario -- but not impossible, the way things have gone lately -- for the Blue Jays to do their celebrating at home. To clinch on Sunday, they would have to sweep the Yankees, and the Tigers would have to win at least two from the Orioles.

The Blue Jays have shown themselves to be vulnerable to losing streaks this year -- but always they've recovered. And the most recent turnaround was the one that made the difference, said Paul Molitor, the designated hitter who joined the club as a free agent this season.

When the Blue Jays lost six of their first seven games in September, their lead shrunk, but it didn't disappear. "They didn't take advantage of it when we were struggling," said Molitor, who was referring to the Yankees, but could have included the Orioles.

"I think they [the Yankees] might be feeling that was their chance. Our getting hot right after that [losing stretch] might have knocked the wind out of their sails."

Through most of the season, the Yankees have persisted in their pursuit of the Blue Jays. They just haven't been able to get ahead.

On 18 occasions this year the Yankees have been tied for first place -- but they have not spent one day in sole possession of the top spot. And, as much as they have looked forward to this series, they have been unable to take care of the business leading to it, as has been the case with the Orioles.

For the past 15 games, the Yankees have been a nickel-and-dime team (5-10). Compounding the situation, they were swept in a two-game series at home by the Minnesota Twins before crossing the border.

"We know the situation we're in," Yankees manager Buck Showalter said after losing two straight to the Twins.

When they won an implausible game against the Red Sox on Saturday, getting a reprieve when a fan ran onto the fiend just before an apparent final out, the Yankees had the feeling fate was on their side. But fate didn't stay put long, and the Yankees lost their next three games.

"This wasn't what we wanted going into Toronto," first baseman Don Mattingly said. "I don't think any of us expected to fall behind this way.Now, we need help."

The Yankees come into the series trailing the Blue Jays by 5 1/2 games, a half-game ahead of the third-place Orioles. There are still possibilities for the two trailers, but realistically those hopes are as faint as the departed summer breezes.

It has taken the Toronto Blue Jays 152 games to set the table, and dessert is about to be served.

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