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BIRDS ON THE WING
Peter Gammons
October 05, 1987
The Blue Jays won three of four from Detroit in the first of a two-round AL East title fight
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October 05, 1987

Birds On The Wing

The Blue Jays won three of four from Detroit in the first of a two-round AL East title fight

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It was late Thursday afternoon in Toronto, a few hours before the start of the seven-game, two-weekend, two-city, two-country showdown for the American League East championship between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Detroit Tigers. In the Toronto clubhouse Mike Flanagan, the veteran lefthander, late of Baltimore, who would be starting that night for the Jays, was giving a brief lecture on winning. Sitting on one side of him was Cy Young Award candidate Jimmy Key; on the other was rookie pitcher Duane Ward. "Until you win," Flanagan was saying, "people will harp on every flaw they can imagine. Win, and you're ever thereafter a winner."

The Blue Jays won on Thursday, and again on Friday and Saturday, each time by a single run—4-3, 3-2 and 10-9—each time coming from behind and, in the last two of those wins, during their final at bat. On Sunday the Tigers won 3-2 in 13 innings, but Toronto, a half game behind Detroit as the week began, a half game ahead on Thursday, was 2� games up at week's end. The Blue Jays had six games left, the Tigers had seven, including their three-game series this weekend in Detroit.

Toronto's three victories stunned the Tigers, as well as four other AL East managers who, in a preseries poll conducted by The Detroit News , had unanimously picked Detroit to win the division race. Two managers mentioned that the Tigers had the better "chemistry"; Boston's John McNamara said what the others seemed to be thinking: " Toronto has the best all-around talent in our league, but Detroit has the chemistry—the knowledge of what it takes to win."

Those managers evidently have not forgotten the 1985 American League Championship Series, in which the Blue Jays led three games to one but ultimately lost to the Buddy Biancalana Royals. But many Toronto players feel other factors contribute to the general lack of respect for the Jays. They believe the team is perceived as black and Latin (not to mention foreign), with all the subtle and unspoken racist feelings that go with that. But then, lack of respect is nothing new to Toronto manager Jimy Williams. When he was hired to manage the Cardinals' Triple A team in Springfield, Ill., in 1978, the owner looked at him and said, "You're the wrong Williams." "He had wanted the Jimmy Williams who now coaches in Baltimore," says Jimy. "I'm used to being anonymous."

So are his players. "We're always being called the team with a few big stars," says first baseman Willie Upshaw. "But we're as deep as anyone in the league down the bench, and what makes us a much better team than we were in 1985 are two factors. First, our bullpen is the deepest in baseball. And second, we've all grown up a lot since then. In '85, we were awed by it all."

Last week they seemed loose and confident even when behind, and they showed their mettle by coming back time and again against Detroit. "Maybe we're winning because I flunked chemistry," said outfielder Jesse Barfield.

Not likely. It was the Tigers who had the wrong mix. As the series began, Detroit's exceptional starting pitchers, Jack Morris, Doyle Alexander and Walt Terrell, had a combined 24—7 record dating back to the All-Star break, and a supercharged offense, the most productive in baseball, had been obscuring the bareness of the bullpen. Rookie Mike Henneman was the only reliable reliever on a staff that had blown 10 of its last 20 save opportunities before the series.

In contrast to Detroit manager Sparky Anderson's one-man bullpen, Williams had the luxury of having four righthanders and three lefties, all battleworthy, thanks to September call-ups. In fact, while Anderson would start Morris, Terrell and Alexander, each on three days' rest, Williams gave his starters an additional day off by opening with rookie reliever Jose Nunez on Sept. 22 in Baltimore and following him with three more relievers.

"That was a good lift, getting the extra day," said Flanagan before hooking up with Morris, the premier pitcher of the decade, in the opener. Flanagan, 35, had been given up for dead after he blew his elbow out in May and spent two months on the disabled list. When the Cardinals, Reds and Yankees were looking around for late-season pitching help, they ignored the 1979 Cy Young Award winner, figuring all those years—and in one stretch 157 starts without missing a turn—had taken their toll. But Toronto traded two young pitchers to get him. Flanagan's first appearance, on Sept. 5, was a shutout of the Mariners, and before he faced Morris, the Blue Jays had lost only one of Flanagan's four starts. " Flanagan's like a new man...or should I say like the old Mike Flanagan?" said Darrell Evans, the Detroit DH-first baseman.

But it didn't look as if the Tigers would have much trouble with Flanagan, or with Toronto, after what happened in the third inning. With Bill Madlock on first, Kirk Gibson tapped to second baseman Nelson Liriano. Madlock, who isn't known as Mad Dog for nothing, went hard at shortstop Tony Fernandez to break up the double play, as if the Blue Jays really had a chance to catch the speedy Gibson. "No chance," said Toronto coach Cito Gaston. "But Madlock and Fernandez are such intense competitors they still went at it." Madlock threw a cross-body block. "If my knee wasn't injured, I'd have avoided him," Fernandez said later. But he could not. He went head over heels, and when he landed, his elbow struck the metal strip that frames the sliding area around second base. "As soon as I got to him, I knew it was broken and he was out for the year," said Williams. After the game, Madlock received death threats at his hotel, but as Fernandez told The Toronto Star , "He was just doing his job, trying to win."

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