Jays Looking More Like 1987 Team Every Game
SEATTLE — At the end of Sunday’s putrid Blue Jays effort against the Los Angeles Angels somebody asked if this was what it was like in 1987.
For the young or the forgetful, the reference was to the 1987 Blue Jays, a team that was, in my mind, every bit as tough and talented as the World Series teams of 1992 and 1993. My first inclination was to suggest that this torturous September debacle of 2016 bears no resemblance to the sudden collapse in 1987 but, on further review, maybe it’s worth a look.
First, a history lesson.
At the time, the two leagues were split into only two divisions each. For much of the season, the Detroit Tigers and the Blue Jays ran one-two in the seven-team AL East.
George Bell was in his prime that season. He hit 47 home runs and was named the American League MVP by an eyelash over Detroit’s Alan Trammell. Tony Fernandez was also at his peak, playing spectacular defence and leading the team in hitting. Between them, outfielders Bell, Jesse Barfield and Lloyd Moseby hit 101 homers and drove in 314 runs.
On the pitching side, Jimmy Key, Jim Clancy and Dave Stieb were the three mainstays. Key (261) and Clancy (241) accounted for an astounding (by today’s standards) 502 innings between them. Stieb chipped in with 185. Mike Flanagan, a trade deadline pickup from Baltimore, rounded out the rotation.
Tom Henke and Mark Eichhorn were the two key relief pitchers. Henke saved 34 games and Eichhorn logged 127 relief innings.
On Sept. 24, the Tigers came to old Exhibition Stadium for the start of a critical four-game series, trailing Toronto by a half-game.
In the third inning of the first game, Bill Madlock singled. When Kirk Gibson hit a weak ground ball, Madlock was forced at second base but went far off the baseline to take out Fernandez with a vicious slide, trying to break up the double play. That was how the game was played back then, but Madlock’s slide even bent the lenient rules of the day. He flipped Fernandez, who came down hard on a wooden frame surrounding the second-base cutout. His elbow was shattered, his season finished.
The Jays would go on to score four runs in the bottom of that inning and held on for a 4-3 win. On the Friday and Saturday games, the Jays walked the Tigers off with scores of 3-2 and 10-9, to take a 3.5-game lead into the Sunday game. At that point, the Jays had won 96 games with still seven to play. Who could have guess they would not win even one more?
In that series finale, the Tigers were able to salvage what turned out to be a season-saving win. The Jays took a 1-0 lead into the ninth inning but Gibson’s homer off Henke sent it to extras. In the top of the 11th, Darrell Evans homered for the Tigers but the Jays tied it again in the bottom of the inning. Alas for Toronto, in the 13th, Gibson singled in the eventual winning run in a 3-2 decision.
Still the Jays led the division by 2.5 games with just six games remaining on the schedule. While the Tigers went home for a four-game series against Baltimore, the Jays hosted the Milwaukee Brewers for three. Without Fernandez and catcher Ernie Whitt, who had also been injured in the opening game of the Milwaukee series, cracking a rib, ironically while trying to break up a double play, the Jays were swept by the Brewers.
Meanwhile, the Tigers split with Baltimore. The Blue Jays headed for Detoit and that final weekend three-game showdown, leading the division by one game.
In that final weekend, the Blue Jays’ bats fell silent. They lost all three games, each one by a solitary run. In the finale, Larry Herndon’s solo home run in the bottom of the second inning was the only run of the game as the Tigers took the game and the division with a 1-0 victory.
The Jays had it all that year: Hitting, pitching and defence, but they could not deliver in those important moments in the game’s final week.
How does this relate to what is happening in 2016? Perhaps not at all, but there are some striking similarities.
In neither season is the pitching staff culpable. The 1987 staff was solid all the way down the stretch, giving the Jays every opportunity to win all of those last seven games. Ditto for the 2016 pitching staff, which has been sound throughout September. In both cases, it has been a failure of offence. Both teams’ success was and is predicated on big offensive numbers that have not translated into crunch time.
Bell, who would still be voted the MVP of the American League in 1987, went 3-for-32 (.093) in those final seven games. He had been the straw that stirred the drink all season as the Jays scored 845 runs.
Likewise in 2016, the reigning league MVP, Josh Donaldson, has slipped into a funk in September. In his last 12 games, heading into Monday’s opener in Seattle, Donaldson was 5-for-39 (.128).
The Jays of 2016 still have time to redeem themselves but the trend is not promising. One of this team’s hallmarks has been its consistency. Until early September, they had gone 65 games without losing more than two in a row. But now, in this most crucial month, they have lost 11 of 16. When they took care of business in the first two games at Anaheim, there was a hint that they might be coming around but the most recent two losses to the Angels were, to put it mildly, brutal.
Yet, unlike those 1987 Blue Jays, there is still time for the 2016 version. They still maintain a tenuous hold on a wild-card spot and, as of Monday, they still had 13 games remaining to redeem themselves.