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The American league championship Series was spinning out of control like some NASA space probe when Toronto Blue Jay pitcher Juan Guzman climbed the SkyDome mound for Game 5 on Sunday night. For the first time in ALCS history, the home team had failed to win any of the first four games. The White Sox had dropped the first two in Chicago and appeared on the verge of imploding, what with their hometown fans dogging them, their ace pitcher getting pasted and their two biggest egos whining about riding the bench. As usual Chicago manager Gene Lamont was calmly steering this misfit club through another mess, though he should have sent some of his players off to bed without their warm milk and cookies.
Naturally the Blue Jays couldn't bury such a vulnerable opponent. "A microcosm of our season," said designated hitter Paul Molitor. "We have a tendency to let teams back in it when we get in good position." In Games 3 and 4 in Toronto the White Sox turned to two of their Generation X starting pitchers, and the Jays failed to win either game. By then the series was tied, two losses apiece.
It was left to Guzman to take control of matters. Control? Guzman? The same guy who set a league record this season with 26 wild pitches? The same pitcher who yielded the third-most walks in the league? The same man who in Game 1 walked a career-worst eight batters, hit another, unleashed three wild pitches and scared the wits out of the fans behind home plate? The same Guzman who would go through half a dozen baseballs just warming up in the minor leagues? "He'd throw 'em over the screen, the fence, whatever," says Toronto pitching coach Galen Cisco, who was Guzman's pitching coach at Triple A Syracuse in 1989. "You had to take five or six baseballs with you to the bullpen to get him loose before a game."
Yes, it was the same Guzman out there, but this time with the benefit of a remedial course in throwing strikes. Last Thursday morning Cisco escorted Guzman to the SkyDome bullpen and told him, "Let's see how many strikes you can throw in a row. Forget about trying to hit corners. Throw it down the middle. As many times as you can." And so reserve catcher Randy Knorr squatted behind the plate, set a target dead center and for the next 20 minutes or so hardly needed to move it. "I had Juan throwing strikes just for the benefit of his confidence," Cisco said. "He just needs a reminder once in a while."
Sure enough, Cisco's kid righted the ALCS. With nary a wild pitch and but one base on balls, he allowed the White Sox only one run over seven innings while facing three batters above the minimum. You want control? Guzman was in control of the baseball the way Jimmy Johnson is in control of a comb. With Toronto finally winning in its own building, 5-3, and Guzman accounting for its second victory, the Blue Jays took a three-games-to-two lead as the series moved back to Chicago. Guzman, ready for the trip, clutched a customs form in his left hand as he answered questions in front of his locker. Anything to declare, sir? "My stuff was great today," he said.
Even when he's not sure where the ball's going, Guzman has terrific stuff—in particular a hellacious slider—as evidenced by his phenomenal career record. Including the postseason, he has started 90 major league games and been beaten only 11 times and not once in his 15 trip to the mound since July 20. He has won 45 of those 90 starts and is 5-0 with a 2.04 ERA in six career postseason appearances, which is a better than modest return on a 1987 trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers for infielder Mike Sharperson. "The only chance to beat him," Molitor says, "is when he beats himself." The White Sox were looking to foil him by more blunt means. "I was hoping someone might hit him with a line drive," outfielder Tim Raines said.
Guzman started Game 2 of the 1991 ALCS (behind Tom Candiotti) and Game 3 of the 1992 ALCS (behind Jack Morris and David Cone). This time he was Toronto's No. 1 pitcher. With less than three full years of major league service, Guzman, 27, has established himself as a clutch postseason pitcher near the level of Morris and Dave Stewart, whose victory in Game 2 was his seventh without a loss in LCS play. Stewart and Guzman were a combined 12-0 with a 2.08 ERA in 14 LCS games entering Stewart's start in Game 6 on Tuesday. "We are different pitchers," Guzman said. "He is more of a finesse pitcher, and I am a power pitcher. What we have in common is heart. We do our very best in the big games."
So dominant was Guzman on Sunday that he retired the first 13 hitters before Ellis Burks popped a home run. By then the Blue Jays had put up four runs, three of them off 22-game winner Jack McDowell, who couldn't make it out of the third inning. It was the second time in the series that McDowell didn't have jack. He gave up an ALCS-record 13 hits in losing Game 1 to Guzman 7-3. "We were kind of happy to see him out there, knowing we've hit him well," Toronto outfielder Joe Carter said.
Actually the White Sox started the series by sending Michael Jordan to the mound. It was Jordan who threw out the first ball of Game 1. Let it be recorded that White Sox catcher Ron Karkovice was at the end of Jordan's last assist, for only a few innings later Comiskey Park was abuzz with the word that Jordan would announce his retirement the following morning. The news so eclipsed the Sox's first postseason game in 10 years that Jerry Reinsdorf, chairman of both the White Sox and the Bulls, dispatched Sox general manager Ron Schueler to apologize to the team before Game 2.
"Jerry wanted them to know that as far as he is concerned, this is the most important thing," Lamont said. "Michael didn't want to rain on our parade. It happened that way. Jerry felt bad about it."