Sunday, May 29, 2016

Game of the Day (5/29/91)

Blue Jays 8, A's 3. It was a matchup of the two division leaders at this point in the season. Toronto started Jimmy Key, who was a highly capable pitcher in his prime. Oakland responded with Joe Slusarski, who was... a pitcher.

The A's seized the early lead, as Rickey Henderson led off with a single, Lance Blankenship reached on a bunt hit, and Jose Canseco flied to right; a throwing error from Manuel Lee allowed Henderson to score on the flyout. Slusarski was perfect in the bottom of the first, and Oakland added another run in the second when Vance Law walked, Mike Gallego singled, and Rickey doubled Law home.

Slusarski and Key exchanged flawless half innings before the Jays finally joined the scoring in the third when Lee doubled and Devon White singled him home. But Oakland restored its two-run advantage in the top of the fourth on singles by Willie Wilson, Law, and Gallego. Henderson walked to load the bases, but Key retired Blankenship and Canseco to strand all three men.

Slusarski worked a 1-2-3 fourth. The top of the fifth saw Key allow a two-out Terry Steinbach single, and nothing else. In the home fifth, Greg Myers doubled with one out; Ed Sprague reached on an infield hit, with Myers holding at second, and Lee singled to load the bases. Slusarski then struck out White, and Mookie Wilson grounded out to leave them loaded.

Key kept the bases empty in the top of the sixth, and the Jays went back to work in the bottom of the inning. Roberto Alomar led off with a single, and Joe Carter followed with a game-tying two-run homer. One out later, Rance Mulliniks doubled to chase Slusarski from the mound. Curt Young relieved and induced a grounder to short from Pat Borders, on which pinch runner Ken Williams was thrown out at third. Sprague drew a walk, and Lee singled to load the bases. Up next was White, whose single scored Borders with the go-ahead run.

Duane Ward replaced Key and worked around a Walt Weiss single in the top of the seventh. Toronto stretched the lead in the bottom of the inning when Alomar singled, stole second, moved to third on Carter's groundout, and came home on John Olerud's sacrifice fly. Oakland threatened in the eighth, starting with a one-out Steinbach single; Wilson then walked, putting the tying runs on base. After a strikeout, Ken Dayley relieved Ward and allowed a single to Harold Baines, loading the bases for Henderson. Tom Henke was summoned to the mound and coaxed an inning-ending groundout.

Eric Show was on the mound to begin the bottom of the eighth, and Borders led it off with a single. One out later, Lee singled and White doubled to make it a 6-3 game. Show struck out Mookie Wilson, but Alomar followed with a double that brought both runners home for an 8-3 lead, and Henke retired the A's in order in the ninth to finish things off.

As was mentioned earlier, this was a matchup of two first-place teams - as well as the two teams who met in the 1989 ALCS. In fact, the A's were the three-time defending AL pennant winners entering the year. This season, they would slip to 84 wins and a fourth-place finish in the highly balanced AL West.

The reason? Pitching. The 1990 A's allowed the fewest runs in the league, thanks to a pair of aces at the front of the rotation and an unhittable bullpen (literally no Oakland pitcher in 1990 who relieved in a majority of his appearances had a below-average ERA). '89 had been much the same - good starting, great relief work, fewest runs in the league.

1991, not so much. The twin aces of the 1990 squad, Dave Stewart and Bob Welch, both got old quickly at age 34; Welch's 4.58 ERA was over half a run lower than Stewart's. And outside of Dennis Eckersley, the bullpen fell apart as well. Eckersley and Mike Moore were the only two pitchers to throw at least 40 innings for the '91 A's and post ERAs better than average, and the team as a whole allowed the third-most earned runs in the league, and the most homers. Which is pretty impressive for a team that occupied one of the best pitcher's parks in baseball.

The A's still weren't a bad team in 1991, but this game highlights the difference between them and the Jays at this stage. Toronto started a quality pitcher, who hung in for six innings despite not putting in his best effort, then turned the game over to two all-world relievers in Ward and Henke. The A's also got a decent start, despite having a far-less qualified pitcher going. But when Slusarski ran out of gas, they had nobody good with whom to relieve him, and the Blue Jays broke it open against their subpar bullpen. Which is how a game that was competitive for almost its entire length ended up with a final score of 8-3.

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