Known until now for their wondrous stadium, clean city and unfortunate tendency to buckle under pressure, the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday assumed a new identity.
After pulling off the biggest comeback in American League playoff history in a 7-6 victory that consumed 11 innings and an AL playoff-record 4 hours, 29 minutes, the Blue Jays turned into kids at midnight on Christmas Eve waiting to unwrap the biggest present of all--their first pennant--with one more win over the Oakland A's.
"Everybody is always talking about Toronto choking in the playoffs," said Toronto second baseman Roberto Alomar, whose two-run home run in the ninth inning off Dennis Eckersley tied the game at 6-6 and silenced an Oakland Coliseum crowd of 47,732. "We'll see."
Only once has an AL team overcome a five-run deficit to win a playoff game, and never as late as the Blue Jays did Sunday; the A's trailed the Red Sox, 5-0, after 1 1/2 innings in Game 3 of the 1988 playoffs and won, 10-6. The Blue Jays surpassed that when Pat Borders' sacrifice fly off Kelly Downs scored Derek Bell with the winning run after Bell walked and went to third on a single by Candy Maldonado.
"They were wanting a ground ball or maybe a strikeout," Borders said, "and I had an idea of how they would pitch me. I was expecting a sinker in to try and get that ground ball. It was a pretty decent pitch and I fought it off."
In fighting back Sunday and taking a 3-1 lead into today's game at the Oakland Coliseum, the Blue Jays overcame a 6-1 Oakland lead and an old nemesis in Eckersley.
Brought in to stop the Toronto comeback in the eighth inning, after a double by Alomar against starter Bob Welch and singles by Joe Carter and Dave Winfield against Jeff Parrett had produced a run and left runners on first and third, Eckersley gave up run-scoring singles to John Olerud and Maldonado. By letting those two inherited runners score, Eckersley matched his total from all of this season, but he still ended the inning with a 6-4 lead after getting Kelly Gruber, Borders and pinch-hitter Ed Sprague.
Had he jogged off the mound and into the dugout, the A's might not now have to ponder the daunting notion that only two teams have rallied to win an AL playoff series after taking 3-1 leads, those being the 1985 Kansas City Royals against the Blue Jays and the 1986 Red Sox against the Angels. But Eckersley committed a tactical error when he pumped his fist and stared menacingly at the Blue Jays in their dugout after he struck out Sprague.
"Sometimes you can't wake up a sleeping dog because he might bite you," Maldonado said with a smile.
Said right-hander David Cone, who today can make the Blue Jays the first Canadian team to qualify for the World Series: "We've all seen him do that routine with his fist many times before, but when he looked in our dugout and stared us down, our team took it as a direct challenge."
They took up that challenge energetically against Eckersley, who had a career-high 51 saves this season and had recorded a victory and a save against the Blue Jays in three regular-season appearances. After denting him for two hits in a third of an inning Saturday, they bashed him Sunday.
Devon White led off the ninth with a single to left and took third when the ball bounced past a gimpy-kneed Rickey Henderson. Alomar, who was three for three with a walk and a stolen base before facing Eckersley, ripped a 2-2 fastball to right and immediately raised his arms in exultation.
"I was surprised, because I hadn't had many hits off him. I was just trying to hit the ball and I wasn't trying to hit a home run," said Alomar, who was hitless in five career at-bats against Eckersley. "I knew the ball was going and it was a good feeling. It's tough to beat Eckersley and when you beat Eckersley, it's a great feeling. I'm very happy because he always has success against us."
Eckersley retired Carter on a fly to center and Winfield on a grounder to short before giving up an infield hit to Olerud. That hit brought Oakland Manager Tony La Russa, who ended Eckersley's first five-hit outing of the year and pulled him from a game in mid-inning for the first time since May 25, 1991. The Blue Jays are eight for 17 (.471) against him in this series, compared with the .211 batting average AL hitters compiled against him during the season.
"The best thing you can do is say Toronto got to Eck," La Russa said. "You can't take anything away from that rally. (Saturday) wasn't a classic and today was the same situation."
It was a difficult situation for Eckersley, who insisted his fist-pumping had been misinterpreted.
"I'm trying to get myself geared up, and if they took it the wrong way, I'm sorry," he said. "They got their payback. They can gloat in there while I eat crow. I got mine."
The A's got most of their six runs off a wobbly Jack Morris, sending 10 men to the plate and scoring five times in the third inning.
Olerud had given the Blue Jays an early lead in the second inning, when he poked a 2-and-1 pitch to the opposite field and just over the left-field fence, but the A's blew past them in the third. Henderson's first of three hits scored the first run, Ruben Sierra's sacrifice fly scored the second, and Harold Baines collected his fourth RBI of the series with a double to left. The Blue Jays walked Mark McGwire to get to Terry Steinbach, who walked on four pitches to force in a run, and Carney Lansford beat out a grounder to short to score the fifth run.
Morris was lifted with one out in the fourth, his shortest postseason outing and briefest since he lasted 2 2/3 against the White Sox May 24 at Chicago. The A's left two runners on base in the fourth, one in the fifth, one in the sixth, two in the eighth and one in the ninth after Eric Fox tried to score from third on a soft grounder to second. "It was instinct I went on," Fox said. "I've got to make sure the ball goes into the outfield."
All the while, as Todd Stottlemyre, Mike Timlin, Duane Ward and finally Tom Henke paraded out of their bullpen, the Blue Jays never counted themselves out. "With what this team has been doing all year, we never felt it was over," Alomar said. "We had a chance, and we went out there and did it. I don't know how we did it, but we did it."
And they did it with a flourish, shoving aside memories of their 1985 seven-game playoff collapse and their five-game dismissals in 1989 by the A's and 1991 by the Twins.
"That was the biggest game I've ever played," said Maldonado, who participated in two playoffs with the Dodgers and two with the Giants. "Especially because we did this in the playoffs, late in the game and against the best relief pitcher in baseball. It was big ."