Sunday, September 18, 2016

Game of the Day (9/18/91)

Blue Jays 5, Mariners 3 (12). The pitching matchup comprised two pitchers who generally had no idea where the ball was going, for very different reasons: Toronto knuckleballer Tom Candiotti and Seattle flamethrower Randy Johnson.

In the top of the first, Roberto Alomar reached on a one-out error by Dave Cochrane; he was promptly erased on a double play, and Candiotti kept the bases clear in the bottom of the inning. Candy Maldonado was plunked in the top of the second and advanced on a wild pitch and a flyout before being left at third. Candiotti and Johnson then exchanged 1-2-3 innings, and in the home third, Candiotti allowed a bunt hit to Dave Valle, then coaxed a twin killing from Omar Vizquel.

Toronto drew first blood when Kelly Gruber homered in the top of the fourth. Seattle threatened in the bottom of the inning when Greg Briley singled, moved to second on a groundout and took third on a passed ball, but Candiotti stranded him there. Johnson plunked Rene Gonzales and walked Devon White in the fifth before escaping; Alvin Davis led off the bottom of the inning with a double and didn't move from second. Joe Carter began the sixth with a single and advanced a base on a groundout before being left on; Vizquel and Briley walked to start the bottom of the inning and were still on first and second when it concluded.

The mild rallies persisted in the seventh and eighth, as Pat Borders walked and was stranded in the top of the former inning, and Alomar singled and was caught stealing in the latter. And in the bottom of the inning, the Mariners finally, finally completed a rally, starting with Vizquel's one-out triple. Harold Reynolds walked with two away, bringing Ken Griffey Jr. to the plate. The young star had largely been flummoxed by the knuckler to this point, but Griffey waited out a 3-0 count, then came through with a game-tying single. David Wells relieved Candiotti and ended the inning.

Calvin Jones supplanted Johnson in the ninth and walked Maldonado to begin the inning. Pinch runner Rob Ducey moved to second on a groundout and stayed there while John Olerud was intentionally walked. Pinch hitter Dave Parker then singled, and Ducey was thrown out at home, largely defusing the threat. Wells worked a 1-2-3 home half of the inning, sending the contest to extras.

Jones was lifted after walking Alomar in the tenth; Michael Jackson took his place, and struck out the next two hitters to leave Alomar at second (which he previously stole). Wells was spotless once more, and Jackson had notably less success in the eleventh. Derek Bell led off with a walk, and after a sac bunt, Olerud was intentionally passed. Rance Mulliniks grounded out, moving the runners to second and third, and Greg Myers then doubled, scoring both of them to put Toronto in front 3-1.

Wells's string of perfection came to a swift and decisive end in the home eleventh on singles by Reynolds, Griffey, and Pete O'Brien, the third of which scored a run and brought Duane Ward to the mound in an attempt to salvage the situation. Ward recorded three outs in three batters; unfortunately, the first came when O'Brien tried to go first-to-third on Tino Martinez's single, which had already scored Griffey with the tying run.

Scott Bankhead relieved Jackson in the top of the twelfth, and Alomar greeted him with a double. Carter walked, and Gruber singled to bring Alomar home with the go-ahead run. Bell's single plated Carter to make it 5-3. A groundout put runners at second and third, and Olerud was then intentionally walked to load the bases. Manuel Lee followed that with an inning-ending double play ball. Jim Acker took the mound in the bottom of the twelfth and set the Mariners down in order.

Before we get into the larger narrative implications of this game, a side note: John Olerud started this game on the bench, entering for defensive purposes in the bottom of the eighth. Because the game went into extras, he ended up with three plate appearances - and was issued three intentional walks. A player coming off the bench and being intentionally walked more than twice in the same game... that has to be less than a once-a-year occurrence in all of MLB.

Entering play on September 18, 1991, the Blue Jays led the AL East by 2.5 games - not a blowout, but not the closest of races either. Most teams would feel at least relatively secure in that position, but the Jays... well, the Jays had a history.

The Blue Jays were created in the 1977 expansion (along with the Mariners, as it happens), and were quite dreadful out of the gate, winning less than 37% of their games in four of their first five seasons. In 1982, however, they won a respectable 78 games, and starting in 1983, they would post winning records in 11 straight years.

Their first playoff appearance came in 1985, and they won three of the first four games of the ALCS. Unfortunately, that was the first year that the LCS round was best-of-7 instead of best-of-5, and the Jays proceeded to lose the next three. And so it began.

In 1987, Toronto led the division by 3.5 games with a week to play - and lost seven games in a row, including the last three of the season to the Tigers, the team chasing them. They finished two out in '88 (although there was no lead to blow that time; they won their last six to get that close), then won the division in '89 and lost a decisive ALCS to Oakland. 1990 saw them take a 1.5-game lead with 8 to go, then go 2-6 and lose the division by 2 games.

So there were a few narrative demons lurking around the Jays - and with the team having blown a ninth-inning lead and lost the previous day's game, they might well have found themselves on psychologically shaky ground. And then, they blew leads in the eighth and eleventh innings of this one... only to score two more in the twelfth and emerge with the victory anyway.

The lead stayed at 2.5 after this hard-fought win, and would expand from there. And while (as noted yesterday) the team's playoff fortunes turned sour again in '91, the story didn't end there, and they would fight through thrilling World Series in both '92 and '93 to capture Canada's first championships in America's pastime.

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