Ward-less Jays successfully saving ground

INSIDE PITCH

May 10, 1994|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Sun Staff Writer

The standings say they're in fourth place, but the rest of the American League's East Division still is chasing the Toronto Blue Jays. And for good reason.

The feeling persists that if the two-time defending World Series champions are going to be dethroned, the damage will have to be done during the early months of the season. Every game the Blue Jays play without closer Duane Ward, or a trade-eligible substitute such as Minnesota's Rick Aguilera, presents an opportunity not to be wasted.

So far, no other team has given indication of being capable of stepping up and taking charge of the race. The impressive won-lost records by everybody except the Detroit Tigers is misleading because the AL East figures to remain that way throughout the season.

At the moment, the Blue Jays are as vulnerable as they are going to be. They had blown five of nine save opportunities going into last night and Ward (who converted 45 of 51 a year ago) isn't close to returning.

But the Blue Jays still feature the most devastating lineup in baseball. They merely lead the American League in batting average, runs, hits, doubles, triples and total bases.

That offense not only lets manager Cito Gaston give his starting pitchers more innings than they sometimes deserve, it also is buying crucial time for general manager Pat Gillick. While the Blue Jays tread the standings, easily within reach of the lead, Gillick has the luxury of postponing a decision on Ward.

When he can not afford to wait any longer, and if waiting on Ward to return is considered a risky decision, Gillick's track record says he will pull the trade trigger.

He'd rather not have to pilfer products from Toronto's productive farm system, but won't hesitate if it's deemed necessary.

Aguilera is available for a price. The same will be true of Florida's Bryan Harvey, if he proves to be physically sound when he returns from the disabled list.

It's been 20 years (since the 1972-74 Oakland Athletics) since a team won the World Series three straight years. Gillick, who has scheduled his retirement for October, would like to go out with a three-peat for Canada's premier team.

Going into last night's game against the Orioles, the Blue Jays were 10th in the AL with a team ERA of 5.19. Of the 28 major-league teams, only the A's (two) had fewer saves than the Blue Jays (four).

Those kind of numbers are not going to get the Blue Jays a return ticket to the World Series. But, for any team with designs on the postseason pedestal, it would be a serious miscalculation to depend on the status remaining quo.

The Blue Jays are not only used to winning, they also know how to go about it -- both on the field and off.

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