An AL East Title Run For The 1989 Toronto Blue Jays

The pressure was on for the 1989 Toronto Blue Jays. The franchise had become one of baseball’s most consistently successful, with winning seasons  each year going back to 1983 and an AL East title in 1985. But they were also getting a reputation as a team that kept coming up short. Collapses in the ’85 ALCS and the final week of 1987, along with disappointing years in 1986 and 1988, fed that reputation. The Jays had to win in 1989 and thought it didn’t always look pretty, they returned to the postseason.

Toronto’s success was built around having a balanced team, throughout the lineup and with both hitting and pitching. They would rank third in the American League for runs scored in 1989 and fourth in ERA. But first among equals was Fred McGriff.

After a breakout year in ’88 established McGriff as one of baseball’s top young hitters, the first baseman kept right on rolling in ’89. His stat line was .399 on-base percentage/.525 slugging percentage. He ripped 36 home runs and drove in 92 runs.

Kelly Gruber was another emerging star at third base, slugging .448. Gruber and McGriff carried a lineup that saw declining production from an outfield that had been one of baseball’s best for several years.

George Bell had been the MVP as recently as 1987 and with a .330/.458 stat line, he was still productive. But the decline from elite status was obvious. Lloyd Moseby in center had his second straight off year. And Jesse Barfield, one of the game’s top right fielders for several years, continued a decline and was traded by the end of April.

The starting pitching was well-balanced. No one had a dominant year, but the five starters all finished with ERAs in the 3s. John Cerutti had the best ERA, at 3.97. Dave Stieb, one of the key faces of this franchise throughout the 1980s ascendancy, won 17 games. Mike Flanagan and Jimmy Key were both reliable lefties.

Todd Stottlemyre rounded out the rotation with 18 spot starts. Collectively, these five arms combined to make 145 starts. That’s the kind of reliability that stands up well in a long pennant race.

The bullpen was one of the best and deepest Toronto had during this decade. Tom Henke and Duane Ward split closing duties. A 26-year-old David Wells started to come into his own as a middle reliever with a 2.40 ERA. Frank Willis was steady, with a 3.66 ERA.

Fourth-year manager Jimy Williams needed a strong start to the season. He got the exact opposite. Toronto started a woeful 12-24. It came as no surprise that a managerial change was made. Cito Gaston was hired.

If any positive can be found to losing two-thirds of your games, it’s that almost all of them came outside the AL East and none were against fellow contenders in the division. Toronto crawled to 20-28 by Memorial Day.

The alignment of the era had each league split into just two divisions, an East and a West. There were no wild-cards, with the first-place finishers advancing directly to the League Championship Series. Normally, a start like Toronto’s would be devasting. But the AL East, after having been baseball’s best division through the 1980s, was starting to get a little soft. The Orioles’ 23-22 record was actually good enough for first place, so the Blue Jays were only 4 ½ games out.

Losing three straight to lowly Cleveland (an AL East team, along with Detroit and Milwaukee, who played in the American League prior to 1998) didn’t exactly usher in the summer on a high note. But the Jays went on to Boston, who had won this division twice in the previous three years, and unloaded for thirty runs in a three-game sweep.

That offensive explosion at Fenway started a 13-7 stretch and got Toronto within sniffing distance of .500. But the first matchups with Baltimore did not go well. Flanagan, who enjoyed his best days as an Oriole, was rocked by his old friends in a 16-6 loss. Cerutti took a hard-luck 2-1 loss and Toronto lost two of three on the road. When Baltimore made a return trip north, Toronto again lost two of three.

By the All-Star break, the Blue Jays were at 42-45 and tied for fourth. With the Orioles starting to pick up the pace, Toronto was seven games out.

The best teams in the American League this season were in the West, specifically the eventual World Series champion Oakland A’s and including the California Angels. Toronto’s taking four of seven games from these teams out of the break was clearly a good sign. By August 13, the Jays were within 2 ½ games of the lead.

With a 58-59 record, there were eleven teams in the majors who had a better record than Toronto. But only one of those teams, Baltimore, was in the AL East. The Blue Jays, along with the Red Sox and Brewers who had the same record, were still in the hunt with a month and a half left.

It was Toronto who got hot and started playing like a legitimate contender. They ripped off 16 wins in the 20 games leading into Labor Day. By the holiday, they were 74-63 and now in the lead, up a game on Baltimore and five on Boston. Milwaukee had fallen off the pace.

The schedule was soft in the early part of September and Toronto was now playing well enough to take advantage. The Blue Jays won nine of ten against the White Sox, Indians and Twins. Another series with Cleveland saw Toronto take the opener. Then the Tribe started up putting up a fight.

Saturday afternoon’s game was tied 2-2. The Blue Jays won it when Bell doubled and then scored on consecutive errors. Another tight pitcher’s duel on Sunday, this one 1-1 in the 10th, was decided by an Indian miscue. An error set up McGriff to drive in the winning run.

Toronto’s surge pushed their record to 83-67, but Baltimore was starting to play like a legitimate contender themselves. The Orioles were still within 2 ½ games of the lead. When the Jays lost consecutive series to the Red Sox and Brewers, that lead was narrowed to a single game entering the final week—and the season would end with a three-game set against Baltimore in Toronto’s old Exhibition Stadium.

Both the Jays and Orioles took care of business in the early part of the week. Toronto won two of three from Detroit, while Baltimore did the same against Milwaukee. The Blue Jays were 87-72. The Orioles were 86-73. The final showdown was here.

Stottlemyre took the ball on Friday night and was brilliant. But he was also getting no run support and Toronto trailed 1-0 in the eighth. Mookie Wilson, a veteran of the New York Mets’ 1986 championship team and acquired in July for moments like this, singled. Baltimore summoned Gregg Olson, the best closer in the American League for 1989.

McGriff grounded into a force play that removed the speedy Wilson from the bases. Gaston sent in Tom Lawless to run for McGriff. Lawless stole second and then took third on a groundball out. With two outs, a wild pitch tied up the game.

The night stretched to the 11th inning. Manny Lee, a versatile infielder, singled with one out. He moved up to second on a groundout. Moseby, who had delivered so many clutch hits for this organization over the years, did it again, a game-winning base hit.

Toronto needed just one more win and had three chances to do it (allowing for the provision of a Monday playoff game if necessary). But having lost the final three games of the ALCS in 1985 and the final seven games of the 1987 regular season, no one in Toronto was going to get too comfortable.

NBC’s Saturday Game of the Week was a baseball staple in this era and with all other division races settled, the network focused in on Blue Jays-Orioles. And once again, Toronto struggled with the bats and trailed into the eighth inning, this time 3-1.

With Olson having worked almost three innings the night before, the Blue Jays got a crack at the underbelly of the Baltimore bullpen. And Toronto took advantage. Two walks set them up. Moseby bunted the tying runs into scoring position. Wilson and McGriff both delivered hits that tied up the game and had Mookie on third.

Bell came to the plate, got a ball in the air and the flyout to right was deep enough to pick up the lead run. Toronto was three outs away and Henke got them. When the closer struck out Larry Sheets, the celebration could start.

It wasn’t a celebration that could last long. The A’s were by far the best team in baseball. And while the Blue Jays put up a fight in the American League Championship Series and routinely got into the lead, Oakland seemed to just take over whenever they had to. Toronto fell in five games.

But if nothing else, the Blue Jays had returned to the postseason. They won the AL East again in 1991. The ultimate pursuit of a World Series title would still take a little time. But by 1992, Toronto would get there and in 1993 they would do it again.