Mission ’13: An Incredible Late Rally Falls Short

Watching the tail-end of the Jays’ comeback win over the Houston Astros today reminded me of a game from yesteryear. In today’s game, both teams loaded the bases in the 9th inning: the Jays capitalized; the ‘Stros didn’t. The result was a 2-1 squeaker for the Jays, as they salvaged a game against the worst team in baseball. Who cares, though: a win’s a win.

When the Jays loaded the bases in the top of the 9th against beleaguered closer Chia-Jen Lo, I watched Lo get more and more frustrated by his poor execution. His frustration was understandable: he couldn’t find the strike zone and was on the verge of blowing the lead. This is what reminded me of a game at Exhibition Stadium in 1986 when the Jays were hosting the New York Yankees.

The Jays scuffled in ’86 after winning their first division title in 1985. Changes had been made, of course, with the most notable being Bobby Cox jumping ship to manage the Atlanta Braves. He was replaced by Jimy Williams. Jimy’s Jays were under-performing as a team. Individuals were performing to expectations but, with a record of 33-33 when the Yankees came into town, the overall effort left much to be desired.

The Yankees have always been the glamour team of the AL East, and with players like Rickey Henderson, Dave Winfield, Doug Drabek and Don Mattingly, 1986 was no exception. The Bombers were powerful, fast, played some decent defense, and had a few very good pitchers. The Jays would be hard-pressed to repeat the success of 1985.

The series began with a Blue Jays win on Thursday, June 19. The Jays got to, and beat, one of the best closers of the decade, Dave Righetti, in the bottom of the 10th inning for a 10-9 win. This gave the Jays a modest streak of 6 wins in their past 8 games. Not bad considering they’d played Detroit and Milwaukee in their previous 2 series. At 34-33, the Jays were finally over the .500 mark, after hanging around 2-5 games under .500 for most of the season.

As with all intra-divisional match-ups, this one was important. The Jays were finally over .500 and the Bombers were in front of Toronto in the standings. Doug Drabek got the call for the Yankees while the late John Cerutti took the hill for the Jays. Given the ERAs on both teams and the offense that each could muster, it promised to be a high scoring series.

The Jays knocked Drabek around a little, scoring 4 ER in his 8+ IP. Cerutti gave up 8 hits and 3 walks in 6.2 IP, but was only tabbed for 3 R, all earned. Then the Jays’ ‘pen imploded. Jim Acker—one of my least favourite Jays of all time—pitched 2.1 innings and gave up 5 ER.

Heading into the bottom of the 9th inning, New York enjoyed a 6-run lead: things looked bleak for the Jays. Drabek faced DH Cliff Johnson and 1B Willie Upshaw in the bottom of the 9th but failed to retire either of them. Enter lefty closer Dave Righetti, one of the best in MLB.

Jimy Williams countered by pinch hitting Buck Martinez for Ernie Whitt. Jimy was an unimaginative platoon manager. Whenever he could, he would send the appropriate-handed batter to the plate without hesitating. It was both a significant weakness and a significant strength of his managerial style. Not surprisingly, Buck struck out. Toronto wasn’t finished, though, as singles by Damaso Garcia and Tony Fernandez plated Johnson and Upshaw. Drabek’s night was done, as he was responsible for the 2 runs. Make the score 8-4 New York.

Jimy then pinch hit Garth Iorg for Rance Mulliniks, sending the RHB Iorg to face the LHP Righetti. Iorg was a contact hitter with good patience; he worked Righetti for a walk to load the bases with 1 out. Lloyd Moseby came to the plate with 1 out and a 4-run deficit staring him right in the eye. ‘Shaker’ was a good hitter and had all kinds of speed, so almost any kind of contact would plate a run as long as he didn’t hit it right at someone. The problem was that ‘Shaker’ didn’t make any contact at all, striking out for the second out of the bottom of the 9th inning.

This set the stage for the marquee match up of the game. It was power versus power as George Bell and Dave Righetti squared off, with Bell improbably representing the game’s tying run. Bell crushed a pitch over the wall and The Ex went crazy as Bell tied the game at 8-8 against Righetti.

Then the second-most memorable event of the night occurred. It’s the one that has stuck with me over the years. No one’s happy when they fail. Professional athletes aren’t excluded from this. Dave Righetti’s father, Leo, was an infield prospect in the Yankees system in the 1940s and 1950s, but never made ‘the show’. This was a source of keen disappointment and frustration for the elder Righetti. Also, Dave’s older brother Steve was signed to a pro contract at the same time that Dave was but he never made the majors either. The family’s honour fell to Dave, who’d wanted to play in pinstripes since he could remember.

Leo’s failure had a profound impact on him, and he drove his boys hard. Very hard. He drove them so hard sometimes that Dave was almost broken emotionally. Then when his brother scrubbed out, Dave took it hard: Steve was his big brother, and Dave always considered him to be the better player.

Dave was called up in 1979, pitched 3 games, then was sent down again. He didn’t re-appear until 1981 but was such an effective starter that he was named Rookie of the Year. He gave up 1 home run in 105.1 IP in his rookie campaign, while posting an ERA slightly over 2.00. He was a good starter for the next couple of years, and his high point was throwing a no-hitter against the Red Sox on Independence Day, 1983. But the Yankees needed a closer. Dave was reluctant, fearing it would hurt his career and his income, but did what the team asked. He took to it a like a duck to water.

When 1986 rolled around he was a well-established closer with a good fastball and slider, and a good reputation. The Jays had roughed him up a little in game 1 of the series, and hung a loss on the Yankees, and George Bell hit a grand slam to tie the game with 2 out in the bottom of the 9th inning. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. All the frustration boiled over and when the umpire tossed him a new ball, Righetti turned and fired it 300 feet over the right field wall and into the dark of night. It’s one of my favourite non-playoff sporting moments of all time. Then he was relieved by Brian Fisher.

Fisher struck out Jesse Barfield—notice that the Yankee pitchers combined to strike out the side while giving up 6 runs—but the damage was done. The game was tied 8-8 and, for the second night in a row, they were going into extra innings.

The Yankees scored a pair in the top of the 10th (how’s that for resilience) and Fisher pitched a scoreless bottom of the frame. The Yankees won the game 10-8.

The Yankees also won the Saturday matinee 4-2 in 10 innings, meaning the first 3 games of the series were decided in extras.  As a testimony to his fortitude, Righetti appeared in his 3rd straight game against the Jays.  This time he was successful, as he would be for most of the rest of the year. The Jays crushed the Yanks on Sunday, 15-1. The Jays scored 35 runs in 4 games, but only managed a split against a divisional rival ahead of them in the standings. The Yanks, for their part, scored 24 to earn a split on the road.

It’s funny what comes to mind in any given situation, isn’t it? Today’s game bore very little resemblance to the game against the Yankees 27+ years ago, but the bases loaded situation with a visibly-frustrated pitcher on the mound was enough to trigger the memory. Upon sporadic reflection over the years the loss was irrelevant to me. Righetti throwing the ball over the fence was something I’d never seen before and haven’t seen since. (Byun-Hyung Kim threw a ball over the fence in Yankee Stadium in 2002 in very different circumstances.)

At any rate, I hope you enjoyed a glimpse into the Blue Jays’ past as we wrestle with the present and look toward the future. I trust we can find another story or two as the Jays play out the string.

Wes Kepstro

I gladly acknowledge that records from http://www.baseball-reference.com and files from Sports Illustrated were used to write this piece.  (http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1136957/4/index.htm)

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