BASEBALL PLAYOFFS : Blue Jays Win One by the Rules : AL Game 2: After Oakland runner is sent back to third on errant pitch, Cone gets out of jam and Gruber's homer helps Toronto get even, 3-1.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

His first instinct was to grab the ball. That's what Blue Jay catcher Pat Borders was taught and that's what he nearly did when David Cone's errant 1-and-1 pitch bounced in front of him and caromed toward the Toronto dugout in the fifth inning of a scoreless game Thursday.

But an inner voice told Borders to let the ball go by, no matter that Oakland's Willie Wilson was coming home on the front end of a double steal as Borders slid on his knees on the artificial turf. Like a child venturing his hand into a flame, Borders jerked his arm away.

"I pulled it back about a foot or so away from the ball," he said. "This had happened before, but I'd never been that close to actually catching it. It was more of a last-second thing. I'm not that sharp a guy."

Borders certainly saved the Blue Jays a run and may have saved them the embarrassment of losing the first two games of the American League championship series. Because the umpires realized Borders had not touched the ball, Wilson was sent back to third and Mike Bordick to second, where they were stranded when Cone slipped a third strike past Walt Weiss and struck out Rickey Henderson on a slider. Given what Cone called "a big reprieve, no doubt about it," the Blue Jays went on to defeat the A's, 3-1, as the teams headed to the Oakland Coliseum for Game 3 Saturday.

Cone, in his first AL playoff start, pitched brilliantly into the ninth inning to help the Blue Jays end a four-game playoff losing streak. He walked three and struck out six, drawing roars of approval from the sellout SkyDome crowd of 51,114 and the Toronto relievers who donned makeshift "conehead" hats in his honor.

Kelly Gruber's two-run home run off Mike Moore in the bottom of the fifth was Cone's reward for pitching out of difficulty in the top of the fifth, and the Blue Jays added a run in the seventh on a double by Gruber, a groundout and Manuel Lee's sacrifice fly. The A's came back for a run in the ninth on a triple by Ruben Sierra and Harold Baines' single off Tom Henke, but Henke--after a long fly ball by Mark McGwire went just foul--retired McGwire, Terry Steinbach and Wilson to even the series.

"I feel like I lifted a little load over those guys' backs," said Gruber, his voice hoarse from a bad cold, while pointing toward his teammates. "They had a pretty heavy load to carry all season (while he endured injuries and hit .229). It's nice to help now."

The biggest help of all came from Cone, who shrugged off the team's disappointment over Jack Morris' loss Wednesday and pitched a strong game.

"Naturally, when you get the home-field advantage and you lose the opening game, it puts extra pressure on me," Cone said. "I wanted to get out of the blocks quickly and let us score some runs."

He did his part, helped by Borders on what was ruled a double steal.

"I almost yelled at Pat Borders not to catch that ball," Cone said of the errant pitch. "I had the feeling that was the rule."

Borders didn't have to be told, but Oakland Manager Tony La Russa did have to be informed the runners couldn't advance more than one base. According to Rule 7.05 (h) "One base, if a ball, pitched to the batter, or thrown by the pitcher from his position on the pitcher's plate to a base to catch a runner, goes into a stand or a bench, or over or through a field fence or backstop. The ball is dead."

Said La Russa: "My argument was that Borders got to it and deflected it. They (the umpires) all agreed Borders didn't deflect it, so it was one base."

Weiss, at the plate when Wilson was sent back, was surprised by the call. He was even more surprised when Cone struck him out on what Cone calls a back-door slider, a pitch that starts outside to left-handed hitters and breaks over the outside edge of the plate.

"I thought he was able to score on that, but apparently Borders never touched the ball before it went into the dugout," Weiss said. "I thought he did, but he didn't.

"In a series like this, every run is golden. You've got to scratch for every run against that staff, from the starters through the bullpen, which is even stronger because they have some of their starters in there. . . . I don't know if it changed that at-bat for me, because I was still trying to get a hit and score a run. It probably changes the psychology for Cone more than anything else."

The decision renewed Cone's strength. "I really felt we got a break on that call," said Cone, who also used a slider down and away to get Henderson for the final out of the inning.

But even Cone wasn't infallible, or so Manager Cito Gaston felt when Cone gave up Sierra's triple leading off the ninth. Cone asked to be left in the game, but Gaston summoned Henke, who had 34 saves this season. It appeared that Gaston, who might have stayed with Jack Morris too long Wednesday, might have pulled Cone too soon: Baines, who is five for eight in the series, singled Sierra home and then McGwire slashed Henke's first pitch deep to left.

"I knew he didn't hit it very good as far as getting the big part of the bat on it," Henke said. "I knew if it stayed fair, it was going to get caught."

McGwire also thought it would go foul, but watching a replay afterward in the A's clubhouse, shook his head in disbelief. "It looked closer on TV than I thought," he said. "I hit it up in the air in a dome, where you don't have any wind to help it out."

The A's were delighted to get out of Toronto with one victory and with the knowledge that but for a freak bounce and a few feet on a foul ball, they might have won both games.

"It would have been a real big game for us to win," said Weiss, who took himself out of scoring position in the eighth inning when he tried to tag and take third on a fly to left by Henderson. A perfect throw from Candy Maldonado got Weiss for the second out.

"Being up 2-0 is a lot different from 1-1," Weiss added. "It would have been tremendous if we'd come out of here up 2-0 but considering the circumstances, going up against Morris and Cone, we didn't come out of it too bad."

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