It goes beyond the lingo of set-up man and closer. They are the Toronto Blue Jays’ team within a team. A partnership.
“No question about it,” the closer, Tom Henke, said of his association with the set-up man, Duane Ward.
“I think we’ve made a great team. We’ve won a lot of games and we’ve saved a lot of games.
“We’re also good friends, and there’s been something of a friendly rivalry to it. We’ve kept each other sharp trying to outdo each other.”
The team of Ward and Henke were at it again Wednesday night, preserving a 2-1 victory for Jimmy Key that extended the Blue Jays’ lead over the Atlanta Braves in the best-of-seven World Series to 3-1.
With the Braves on the brink of elimination, this is suddenly a Series being decided in relief. Atlanta has failed to get any relief from Jeff Reardon, while Ward and Henke, partners for five years, have provided it flawlessly for the Blue Jays.
“They have obviously been the best combination in the American League since Ron Davis and Goose Gossage,” Toronto superscout Gordon Lakey said, referring to the New York Yankees’ bullpen duo of the late 1970s and early ‘80s.
“The big thing,” he continued, speaking of the Blue Jays’ duo, “is that they’ve shared it without animosity. I mean, that’s the real key. A relief pitcher gets paid on the basis of saves, but I think Ward knows his day is coming.”
As soon as 1993, perhaps, since Henke, 35 in December, is one of 11 Toronto players eligible for free agency and there has been no indication he will be re-signed by a team that can move Ward, 28, into the closer role and David Wells or Mike Timlin into the set-up role.
“There’s a lot more gratification as a closer,” Ward said, “but I think I’ve got a lot of notoriety and publicity as a set-up man. I’m satisfied as long as we’re winning. That’s the objective, isn’t it? I mean, I think it would be nice to see this group come back as it is (next year) and do this again.”
In his eighth year with the Blue Jays, Henke registered 34 saves in 52 appearances with a 3-2 record. Ward, in his fifth year with Toronto following his 1986 acquisition from the Braves for Doyle Alexander, had 12 saves, a 7-4 record and a career best 1.95 earned-run average in 79 appearances, the second most in the American League.
They have been unbeatable and almost unhittable in the postseason. Ward has been in six of the 10 games and is 3-0, 2-0 in the Series. Henke has also been in six games and has five saves, working 6 2/3 shutout innings.
The Braves closed to 2-1 in the eighth Wednesday night and had a runner at second with two out when Ward replaced Key and struck out Otis Nixon, only to have his breaking pitch bounce in front of the plate and past catcher Pat Borders as Nixon raced to first.
“I made the pitch I wanted in that situation,” Ward said. “I didn’t want anything up that he could line into the outfield. I wanted a pop up or ground ball. The pitch was where I wanted it, but Pat had no chance to block it.”
Unflustered, Ward next faced the right-handed hitting Jeff Blauser thinking, like many others, that Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox would use a left-handed pinch hitter.
“Blauser is a good hitter, but in that situation I anticipated seeing Sid Bream,” Ward said. “It surprised me a little when he let Blauser bat.”
Blauser grounded the second pitch down the first base line. John Olerud smothered it and raced to first to end the threat and complete the set-up man’s assignment.
Henke came on in the ninth to strike out Terry Pendleton, get Lonnie Smith on a tap to the mound and David Justice on a fly to left.
“This is the way we’ve done it 50 or 60 times a year for the last five or six years,” Ward said. “It’s almost academic--the eighth inning is mine and the ninth is Henke’s.
“Everyone knows their role here, which is one of the reasons for this team’s success over the years. We all take pride in it.”
Said Lakey, the superscout: “I’ve never seen both Duane and Tom fail on the same day, and that’s a major part of this team’s success.”
Ward heats it up at 97 m.p.h., using a slider and curve to complement his fastball. Henke, who still throws 92, has responded to a loss of velocity by developing a forkball.
“They started as power pitchers,” Lakey said, “but Duane had problems with his control. Now he’s gained the control that enables him to overpower a hitter and he’s become more consistent with that hard slider. Tom lost a little (off his fastball), but he developed the forkball.
“Now you get two different pitches from two different pitchers who are both capable of being closers. The other thing that sets them apart is their ability to throw strikes. Control is the most important factor for a closer unless he has a dominant pitch like a Bryan Harvey (and his split finger). Then he’s unhittable.”
Ward and Henke have been close to just that, but the old gang may be breaking up. Henke has said he would like to stay and would take less to stay, but he said in the wake of his latest save that it won’t have his undivided attention until the Series is over.
He also said it has been his dream since boyhood to get the final out of a final World Series game.