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Detroit Is One Game From Title : After 3-2 Loss in 12, Toronto Must Win to Force Playoff

October 04, 1987|MIKE PENNER | Times Staff Writer

DETROIT — Philadelphia, 1964.

Boston, 1978.

Toronto, 1987?

Another great collapse in our time is under way, and unless Jimmy Key can find a way to stop the free fall of the Toronto Blue Jays, it becomes complete today. The Blue Jays, one week removed from a 3 1/2-game lead in the American League East, now trail Detroit by one game after Saturday's 3-2, 12-inning loss to the Tigers, the sixth consecutive defeat for Toronto.

One game remains on the regular-season schedule today (Channels 7 and 10, Noon, PDT). If Key, Toronto's No. 1 starting pitcher, wins it, there will be a one-game playoff Monday afternoon. If not, Detroit will go to Minnesota as the AL East playoff representative, and the Blue Jays will go down as this decade's biggest baseball pratfall.

Seven days ago, Toronto was riding the crest of three straight victories over the Tigers and was moving in for a fourth. Last Sunday, the Blue Jays were three outs away from assuming a 4 1/2-game lead before Kirk Gibson hit his ninth-inning, game-tying home run and the Tigers managed a 3-2 victory in the 13th.

Toronto hasn't won since.

Three consecutive losses at home to Milwaukee have been followed by two excruciating defeats here. And Saturday, the Blue Jays might well have ventured beyond their pain threshold.

They lost after 35-year-old Mike Flanagan pitched 11 sparkling innings, allowing just one earned run. They lost after leaving 10 runners on base in the first eight innings and after struggling George Bell went 0 for 4 again.

Ultimately, they lost on a ground ball right at shortstop Manny Lee, who was playing in with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the 12th. Alan Trammell hit it, and Lee missed it--the ball skipped between Lee's legs for a generously scored single--to enable pinch-runner Jim Walewander to bring home the decisive run from third base.

The burst of enthusiasm from the Detroit dugout was matched only by the burst of questions that filled the Toronto clubhouse.

How badly do the Blue Jays miss injured shortstop Tony Fernandez?

Why was Manager Jimy Williams playing his infield in and not at double-play depth?

Why wasn't Tom Henke, the American League's save leader with 34, in the game?

Are the Blue Jays through?

Williams provided some answers.

He said the infield was in because "of the simple reason Trammell is a good runner and so is Walewander. If you get a chopper on that grass, it's going to be tough. You want to make sure you can turn it (the double play) on the hitter. Our only chance was to go home to first."

First, of course, Lee had to field the ball.

"It was a tough play," Williams allowed, "but with his arm, we would've had a chance at two. To me, Manny Lee is an outstanding fielder. He made several good plays today. But in a series like this, you're under a microscope, and people tend not to look at the positive."

Lee, the replacement at shortstop for Fernandez, an All-Star, preferred not to look at anything, brushing away wave after wave of reporters, saying, "No, no."

In the other locker room, Trammell, who knows something about Lee's position, offered an opinion on the play.

"The fact that I hit the ball hard made that play not very easy," Trammell said. "The ball scooted on him. It hit the grass and went low. To me, it was a break."

At regular depth, Lee would have had another instant--and maybe another bounce--before fielding the ball, but Trammell said he saw Williams' reasoning behind the drawn-in infield.

"I don't hit into a lot of double plays," Trammell said. "I'm not a big, slow guy. If you play back and don't get two, the game's over, anyway.

"They had to go for the out at home."

Trammell hit the ball off Mark Eichhorn, Toronto's second reliever. The first, Jeff Musselman, had replaced Flanagan in the 12th inning and, with one out, loaded the bases on singles to Lou Whitaker and Bill Madlock and a walk to Kirk Gibson.

The Blue Jays' best reliever, Henke, remained in the bullpen.

Why? Williams said he was simply managing according to form--Henke comes in only when there's a lead to save. In a tied game, Musselman and Eichhorn get the call.

"That's been Eich's and Muss' territory all year," Henke said. "Jimy's managed that way all year. We got 96 wins that way, why not go to them in that situation?

"Now, with possibly two games left, I'm still ready to pitch."

Or, possibly, Toronto may have only one game left. The Blue Jays have picked the wrong time to hit the skids. Asking them to snap out of it--now or never--may be asking too much. As Detroit's Darrell Evans put it, "I think you get used to winning--and I think you get used to losing."

Major league baseball is only 11 years old in Toronto, but seven straight losses to blow the playoffs would secure the Blue Jays a spot in baseball history forever.

"Obviously, people are going to say, 'You blew it, you choked,' " Toronto third baseman Rance Mulliniks said. "But the people who say that have never been out there, in this situation.

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