Friday, November 20, 2015

Best Postseason Win: Toronto Blue Jays

The Blue Jays have two major advantages on their former Canadian brethren. First, they've won two World Series titles, and made the playoffs a few more times (including this year).

Second, they still exist. So they have that going for them, which is nice.

The more famous of Toronto's back-to-back world titles is 1993, which featured both the highest-scoring game in World Series history and a come-from-behind Series-ending walkoff homer. So naturally, WPL is bypassing both of those games in favor of the best entry from the previous year.

1992 World Series Game 6: Blue Jays 4, Braves 3 (11). The pitching matchup was David Cone, who at 29 had been traded for the first time in midseason, thereby putting him on the wandering ace path that would define the latter part of his excellent career, against Steve Avery, a 22-year-old lefty coming off of back-to-back 35-start, 115 ERA+ seasons, who fit in nicely with the other two young aces on the Atlanta staff (for now).

The Jays produced a quick run in the top of the first, as Devon White led off with a single, stole second, moved to third on a Roberto Alomar groundout, and scored on a sacrifice fly by Joe Carter; the only glitch in the run manufacturing process was that David Justice dropped Carter's fly, allowing him to reach second. Avery walked Dave Winfield before inducing back-to-back forceouts to end the inning without further damage.

Cone worked around a Terry Pendleton single in the bottom of the first, and Avery countered a leadoff hit from Pat Borders by inducing a double play from Cone in the visiting second. Sid Bream and Jeff Blauser opened the home second with a walk and a single, but two flyouts and a strikeout kept the Toronto lead intact. The Jays tried to duplicate their opening inning in the top of the third, as Alomar singled, stole second, and moved to third on a grounder, but Winfield's subsequent flyout came when there were already two outs, and thus left Alomar 90 feet away.

Atlanta picked up its first run in the bottom of the third when Deion Sanders doubled, stole third, and scored on a Pendleton sac fly, but the Jays pulled ahead again on a Candy Maldonado homer to open the fourth. A Borders double and a two-out walk to Cone brought White to the plate, and his single sent Borders home - but not safely; Sanders threw him out at the plate to end the threat.

Cone set the Braves down in order in the fourth - the first 1-2-3 inning of the game - and Avery was pulled in favor of Pete Smith to start the fifth. Smith allowed a double to Carter, but nothing else; the bottom of the inning went less well for him, as after Mark Lemke led off with a walk, he bunted foul for strike 3, which meant that Sanders' two-out single moved Lemke from first to third instead of second to home. Sanders stole second, but Pendleton fanned to leave both runners in scoring position.

Both pitchers allowed lone baserunners in the sixth (Manuel Lee singled in the top, Bream walked in the bottom). Smith did the same in the seventh, working around a hit by Alomar. In the home seventh, Cone was replaced by Todd Stottlemyre, who recorded the first two outs before giving up a hit to Otis Nixon; David Wells then relieved, and on the fourth pitch to pinch hitter Ron Gant, Nixon was thrown out stealing second.

Mike Stanton yielded a leadoff single to Maldonado in the eighth and worked around it; Duane Ward walked David Justice with two outs in the bottom of the inning and left him on. The one-hit-innings parade continued in the top of the ninth, as Carter doubled with two outs, but Mark Wohlers relieved Stanton and left the runner on. Still, the Jays were now three outs away from their first world title, with Tom Henke coming out of the pen to seal it.

Blauer led off the inning with a single, and was bunted to second by Damon Berryhill. Pinch hitter Lonnie Smith walked, and another pinch hitter stepped in: Francisco Cabrera, who just over a week earlier had ended Game 7 of the NLCS with a come-from-behind walkoff two-run single. He was now in position to have two of the most famous pinch hits in baseball history in the same postseason.

He didn't - he lined to left on the eighth pitch of the at bat instead. But up next was Nixon, and on an 0-2 count, the speedy center fielder grounded the ball through the 5-6 hole to score Blauser with the tying run. Smith took third, and Nixon moved to second on the throw home, and suddenly instead of being an out away from defeat, the Braves were a hit away from forcing a seventh game. Henke held his nerve and got Gant to fly out, sending the game to extras.

Charlie Liebrandt took the mound in the tenth and allowed a single to Kelly Gruber, but nothing else; Henke and Jimmy Key combined to set the Braves down in order in the bottom of the inning. Liebrandt retired Key to open the eleventh, but then hit White with a pitch and allowed a single to Alomar. Carter flied out, but Winfield worked a full count and then doubled to left, bringing both runners home for a 4-2 lead.

The Braves didn't go quietly in the bottom of the inning. Blauser led off with a single, just like he had in the ninth; Berryhill grounded to short, but the recently-inserted Alfredo Griffin misplayed the ball to put runners on the corners. Rafael Belliard bunted the trail runner to second, which seems like a strange use of an out even if it did put the tying run in scoring position. Pinch hitter Brian Hunter followed with an RBI groundout that moved the tying run to third and chased Key from the mound in favor of Mike Timlin. And Nixon, the hero of two innings earlier, bunted on the second pitch of the at bat; Timlin threw him out at first to seal Canada's first World Series title.

There are some very obvious things working in this game's favor - the extra innings, the ninth-inning comeback to force them, and the near-comeback in the eleventh after the Jays pulled back ahead are the big ones. But there's also something subtler working in its favor, which is that the action almost never stopped. The game was within one run for virtually its entire duration (the margin peaked at 2 runs, for a span of five at bats, one of which came with the tying runs at second and third), and out of the 22 half innings it included, 20 featured at least one baserunner, and 12 had at least one runner reach scoring position. There were also 24 total at bats with runners in scoring position (the Jays were 2 for 15, the Braves 1 for 9).

That's why this game grades out as the Blue Jays' best. 1993 had the highlights, but Game 6 of the '92 Series had a persistent tension that the '93 contests lacked, but which WPL loves - to the tune of a 5.41 score, 97th percentile among playoff games.

The honorable mention section for the Jays is full of games that would contend for the top spot with several other teams - particularly the other expansion teams. If you're not bothered by a team failing to win the series, Game 2 of the 1985 ALCS is terrific - the Jays pulled ahead in the eighth, the Royals tied it in the ninth, KC scored one in the top of the tenth and Toronto countered with two in the bottom. If you insist on eventual victory, there's Game 4 of the '92 ALCS, in which the Jays rallied from a five-run deficit in the last two innings, threw out the winning run at home in the bottom of the ninth, and eventually won in eleven. And if you're not bothered by obvious choices (which are obvious because they're very good choices), you can always go with Game 4 of the '93 Series, the absurd 15-14 omnislugfest, or either of a pair of ninth-inning comeback homers: 1992 WS G2, Ed Sprauge off of Jeff Reardon, or 1993 WS G6, Joe Carter off of Mitch Williams.

Yeah, the early '90s Jays played some really good games.

Next week, I'll be out of town for the first few days, and enjoying the holidays for the last few, so we'll put this series on pause for now and come back on November 30 with the Blue Jays' 1977 expansion counterparts.

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