The plunge began last winter, when replacements weren't found for leftfielder Rickey Henderson and shortstop Tony Fernandez, free agents who were not resigned. Also, next to nothing was done to upgrade a pitching staff that was barely adequate in '93. The pool of free-agent pitchers was weak, and Toronto general manager Pat Gillick was outbid for starters Mark Portugal and Tim Belcher. Gillick also tried to trade for the New York Mets' Bret Saberhagen during spring training, but such a deal would have involved losing a top prospect, and the organization had decided to hold on to its young players. Thus, the Blue Jays started the season with only one pitcher who hadn't been with the organization in '93—reliever Greg Cadaret. He was released on June 9.
Perhaps the pivotal day for the Blue Jays, however, was Jan. 4, when Ward woke up with a stiff right shoulder. He made some throws that day, but the next morning he was in severe pain when he tried to brush his teeth, and he was eventually found to have biceps tendinitis. Last Thursday, Ward pitched in a game for the first time this season when he threw one inning for the Jays' rookie league team in Dunedin, Fla. As of Sunday the Toronto bullpen had 12 saves, which tied them with the Chicago White Sox for the fewest in the American League. At the same point in '93, Ward alone had 22 saves; he finished the season with 45. What's more, the Jays' second-best reliever last year, Danny Cox, also made his '94 debut for Dunedin last week, beginning his comeback from an elbow injury.
The haplessness of the Toronto pen was never more evident than on April 15, when the Blue Jays took a 13-6 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning against the California Angels. Relievers Mike Timlin and Todd Stottlemyre gave up seven runs in the ninth, after which rookie Scott Brow yielded the game-winner in the 10th. It was only the third time in 30 years that a major league team had taken a seven-run lead into the ninth inning and didn't win. According to Toronto manager Cito Gaston, after that shocking defeat his players started wondering how many runs they had to score to win.
The Jays pulled themselves together briefly, winning their next six games, but suddenly they stopped hitting—and haven't hit since. "Now the pitchers say, 'Can't you get us four runs?' " says Sprague. Between April 24 and July 3, Toronto scored fewer than four runs in 38 of its 62 games. First baseman John Olerud's two-run double on June 28 ended a streak of 80 innings in which Toronto had not scored more than one run. "We had a minicelebration after Johnny's hit," said the team's designated hitter, Paul Molitor. "It was a long time since we'd put a crooked number up there." Two nights later Olerud ended another ignominious streak by hitting the first home run by a Toronto regular in 379 at bats.
But of all the distressing statistics produced this season, the one that most defies belief is this one: The Blue Jays are last in the league in runs. Coming off a year in which they scored a club-record 847 times, beating opponents with power, speed, patience and intelligent hitting. Toronto hasn't been nearly as selective at the plate in '94. Its bases on balls have dropped dramatically, strikeouts have increased, and the team's batting average is off .011 from the same point a year ago. On June 28 catcher Pat Borders illustrated the offense of late when, with two outs, the Jays down by a run and the bases loaded in the seventh, he swung and missed a neck-high pitch on 3 and 2.
The only regulars producing at a '93 rate are Molitor, who was batting .328 at week's end, and second baseman Robby Alomar (.330). After driving in a major league record 31 runs in April, despite playing with a broken thumb, rightfielder Joe Carter knocked in 36 runs the next two months combined and hit only .175 in June. "Maybe I should break it again," says Carter.
While Olerud was hitting .290 with six homers and 41 RBIs through Sunday, that was a huge drop-off from the .407, 14 homers and 64 RBIs he had at the same point in '93. The fifth batter in the order, Olerud has been pitched around this season partly because the number 6 hole has produced a .213 average and 34 RBIs—both lows for the league. That spot is usually filled by Sprague, who was batting .230 with 22 RBIs as of Sunday. "When you go 0 for 35 [as he did in May], it's tough to rebound," says Sprague, who hit .260 with 73 RBIs last year. "I've gone from thinking I'm going to have a great year to battling to have a decent year." The Jays have gotten the fewest RBIs in the league from their third basemen (20) and shortstops (19) and the second fewest from their catchers (26).
It's bad enough that Toronto's heavy artillery is out of commission. Even worse is the performance of the team's starting pitchers. The biggest disappointment has been Guzman, who entered the season with a 40-11 career record and a 3.28 ERA. At week's end he was 6-9 with a 6.21 ERA. For three years he won without throwing many strikes, as hitters consistently chased his darting slider. This year they've figured him out, and they're forcing him to throw the ball over the plate. Also, while Guzman says he's healthy, some of his teammates believe his elbow is hurting. He didn't look too good last Thursday, when he lasted only 1⅔ innings in a 9-2 loss to the Brewers. "I had nothing," he said afterward.
With each defeat the sense of resignation in the Toronto dugout grows. "They look real flat," says Oriole reliever Mark Williamson. "They don't look like they know they can beat us. Before, even if we got the lead, there was an air about them. Now I don't feel they've got that presence. They're kind of dead. You can feel it in the ballpark, too. There's been no life."
The Blue Jays deny they have become complacent, pointing out that they were unemotional and businesslike when they were winning. Maybe they're just worn down. Toronto was in a pennant race each of the past seven years, and having to play 29 postseason games the last three years might have taken its toll. Nevertheless, this season Gaston has yet to hold a team meeting, toss a chair or flip the postgame spread of food. "That would be out of character," he says. "When the manager panics, the players panic."