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Toronto Blue Jay third baseman Kelly Gruber stood in the on-deck circle at the beginning of the sixth inning in Milwaukee last Saturday and looked around, bewildered. "The whole time I was out in the field in the bottom of the fifth, I was thinking, I'm up second next inning," Gruber said later. "But there was no one else up there to lead off, and [Brewers pitcher Don] August was ready to start the inning. I heard my teammates yelling for me to get a hit—or something. So I went up to the plate."
August delivered the first pitch of the inning to Gruber. Ball one. Blue Jay shortstop Tony Fernandez, who was watching from his seat in the dugout, turned to centerfielder Lloyd Moseby and said, "I think I'm supposed to be up, not Gruber." Good thinking. Tony. With eight games left in the regular season and Toronto in a fight to the finish with the Baltimore Orioles, Fernandez had forgotten to go to bat, and no one—least of all, Gruber—had stopped Gruber from illegally hitting in Fernandez's place. (Since Gruber made an out, the Brewers didn't protest the mistake.) "We're not just guilty of stupidity," said Blue Jay pitcher Mike Flanagan after the 4-1 loss, "we're guilty of tupidity," which, in Flanaganese, is the plural of the word.
Down the stretch, the race for the division title in the American League East, which hits the finish line in Toronto's SkyDome this weekend with a three-game series between the Blue Jays and the Orioles, has been something less than the Kentucky Derby of baseball. On Sunday, the division's two best (least mediocre?) teams were beaten by a couple of pitchers off the release heap named Tom Filer and Chuck Cary. Toronto, which lost three of its six games for the week, lost to the Brewers Sunday after Fernandez and Moseby misplayed balls in the sixth inning, igniting a tie-breaking rally. Baltimore, meanwhile, lost two out of three at home over the weekend to the fifth-place New York Yankees. As a result, the Orioles (84-72) headed to Milwaukee and Toronto for their final six games still a game behind the Jays.
In a divisional race that has defied convention from the beginning, it somehow makes sense that the race would end in Canada at a 21st-century stadium with a movable roof and a Hard Rock Cafe just beyond rightfield. Moreover, the series at SkyDome (assuming the Orioles stay within three games of the Jays) will mark the first time two black managers have ever dueled one another in a pennant showdown. Cito Gaston got to this point by rallying the Blue Jays from a 12-24 start; he did it by calming his players and organizing his deep, talented bullpen. Frank Robinson, who opened spring training with a team that lost 107 games in '88, has molded a young, what-me-worry Oriole squad into a superb defensive unit.
Toronto and Baltimore could hardly contrast more starkly. The Blue Jays are perceived as the underachievers, the club that blew a three-games-to-one lead in the 1985 playoffs to the Kansas City Royals and a 3�-game division lead in '87 by losing their last seven games. In '89, they are the team with everything to lose. "We constantly get asked about '85 and '87, so, of course, we think about the past," says Moseby. "We think we're better off for having gone through it, but all around us people are saying, 'If they blow this one....' It's not the most positive atmosphere."
On the flip side, the Orioles are the overachievers, the team with nothing to lose. Their last regular-season home game of the year was on Sunday, and most of the crowd of 51,173 stayed to give their O's a three-minute standing ovation when the team returned to the field following a 2-0 loss to the Yankees. "I'm here to thank them for the entire year," said Chuck Friedel of Columbia, Md. "I can't thank them enough."
"It helps alleviate pressure when everyone says, 'You're not supposed to be in first place to begin with,' " says Baltimore shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. "It's an entirely different situation for Toronto."
Indeed it is. Consider the view from each clubhouse on Sunday. In Milwaukee, Blue Jay pitcher John Cerutti said, "We've got a one-game lead with a week to go, and I hope we can hold on." In Baltimore, the Orioles' ace reliever Gregg Olson, a 22-year-old rookie, said, "I think of it all coming down to the last weekend in Toronto, and I say, 'This is perfect.' "
Despite the disappointment of a 1-for-3 weekend, Baltimore took to the road carrying the positive memory of an episode that typified its unlikely season. Squeezed between the losses to New York was a 10-2 win on Saturday, a victory that turned on a play described by Ripken as "the way we win." As Oriole outfielder Stanley Jefferson—obtained from the Yankees in July—slid home in the fourth inning, New York catcher Don Slaught failed to tag him, but Jefferson's slide had carried him wide of the plate and six feet past it. When plate umpire Mark Johnson gave no signal, Jefferson realized he had missed home. Slaught, now holding the ball, stood between Jefferson and the plate. "I remembered my shadowboxing days in the Bronx," said Jefferson, who let Slaught make the first move, sidestepped the lunging tag, dropped to his knees and scrambled to the plate. Safe. "That's us," said Jefferson. "We find any way to score."
Robinson and pitching coach Al Jackson have masterfully manipulated what amounts to a four-man pitching staff: Jeff Ballard and rookie Bob Milacki starting, Mark Williamson in the middle and Olson closing. Robinson has had to juggle the third and fourth spots in the rotation; from Aug. 17 through Sunday, Baltimore was 16-4 with Ballard and Milacki starting, 5-11 with anyone else. As for the regular players, Ripken, the Orioles' lone star, finally has started to show the strain of playing every inning of every game for the last eight years: He was 1 for 9 in the Yankee series and at week's end had not driven in a run since September 15. "He's struggling and we're still winning," said Robinson. "That shows something."