Jays @ Yankees: Deja Vu All Over Again

Friday, September 11 2015 @ 10:45 AM EDT

Contributed by: Magpie

It's mid-September and the Blue Jays are in Yankee Stadium for a crucial four-game series with their division rivals. The Jays hold a slim lead atop the AL East, they've got their ace ready to pitch the opener... and some of us have been here before.

It was almost exactly thirty years ago today. The Jays opened their four game set with the Bombers on Thursday 12 September 1985. The AL East standings looked like this:

Team                             G    W    L    T   PCT    GB    RS   RA
Toronto Blue Jays              139   88   51    0  .633     -   671  500
New York Yankees               138   85   53    0  .616   2.5   741  562
Baltimore Orioles              136   72   64    0  .529  14.5   709  634
Detroit Tigers                 138   71   67    0  .514  16.5   609  597
Boston Red Sox                 140   69   70    1  .496  19.0   684  622
Milwaukee Brewers              138   61   77    0  .442  26.5   610  692
Cleveland Indians              140   50   90    0  .357  38.5   596  734

Detroit had taken the early season lead in the division. The Tigers had cruised to a memorable championship the year before, coming out of the block winning 35 of their first 40 en route to a 104-58 record . They had breezed past Kansas City in the ALCS and crushed San Diego in the World Series. They started 1985 picking up right where they had left off, winning their first six games. But they spun their wheels for the next two months, and found themselves 8.5 games behind the Blue Jays by early June. Toronto had first taken a share of first place on April 29, and except for a few days in early May when a Baltimore hot streak (8 of 10) moved the Orioles ahead of the pack by a game, Toronto had held first place ever since - every day since May 12, in fact. Detroit got back in the hunt at that point by winning 10 of 12, but they could never get closer than 2.5 games off the lead. Halfway through the season, the Tigers had a 47-34 record - on pace to win 94 games - but they were still 3.5 games off the lead. They lost 12 of their next 19 and by the August they were 10 games back, looking up at both the Blue Jays and Yankees.

The Yankees had been dead last at the end of April. George Steinbrenner had fired Yogi Berra after a 6-10 start and brought back Billy Martin yet again. It didn't seem to make much difference - in mid-June the Yankees were 28-29, in fifth place, 8.5 games off the lead. Then they got hot. They won 24 of their next 32 and cut Toronto's lead to just 1.5 games. They were, however, in the midst of a 15 game road trip - and they would get swept by the Royals, lose 3 of 4 to Cleveland, and find themselves 8.5 games back when the calendar turned to August. They lost their first two games in August, slipping to 9.5 behind the Blue Jays, who appeared to be cruising to their first post-season berth.

Then the Yankees got hot again. They won 19 of their next 25, cutting the Toronto lead to 4 games - then, after a loss to the Angels, they put up 11 straight wins to close to within 1.5 games of the Jays. That's right - they'd just gone 30-7, and put themselves right back in the race. On September 11, the Yankees lost a tough one in Milwaukee while Toronto was beating Detroit to set up the big showdown.

Meanwhile, across town, John Tudor had beat the Mets 1-0, pulling the Cardinals into a dead heat with the Mets atop the NL East. They would wrap up their series on Thursday afternoon. It must have been a great day for New York baseball junkies, or those who were up for the trek from Queens up to the Bronx.

Here's how the matchups looked:

Thu Sep 12 Stieb (13-10, 2.48) vs Guidry (18-5, 3.01)
Fri Sep 13 Clancy (7-4, 3.77) vs Niekro (15-9, 4.10)
Sat Sep 14 Key (12-6, 3.01) vs Shirley (5-4, 2.63)
Sun Sep 15 Alexander (15-8, 3.59) vs Whitson (10-7, 4.86)

You're probably looking at those pitching match-ups and wondering why the race was so close. Bob Shirley hadn't started a game since July, but Martin had been unable to find anyone to fill Dennis Rasmussen's rotation spot, having already tried Marty Bystrom and Rich Bordi. (Both teams were using five man rotations at this point - Joe Cowley had started the last game in Milwaukee for the Yankees. At this moment, having lost Luis Leal to incompetence and Tom Filer to injury, the Jays had put rookie LH Steve Davis in the rotation. Davis had already gone 20-8, 2.46 games at Knoxville and Syracuse, and had won two more games (one in relief) for the Jays. Oh, we thought he was going to be a star!

This was, in some senses, a classic matchup. The Yankees had what was clearly the best offense in baseball, and Toronto had what was probably the best pitching in the game. (Only three teams allowed fewer runs than the 1985 Blue Jays, and they were all National League teams that played their home games in pitcher's parks - the Mets, the Cardinals, the Dodgers.) The New York offence was anchored by two of the three best players in the world that year. At the top of the lineup was Rickey Henderson, 26 years old and at the peak of his powers. Henderson came into the series hitting .325/.425/.518 - he'd already scored 123 runs and would finish the year having crossed home plate 146 times, the most by anyone since Ted Williams in 1949 and a figure that's only been surpassed once in the thirty years since (Jeff Bagwell in 2000.) And batting third, in just his second season as an everyday player, was 24 year old first baseman Don Mattingly, who had simply exploded on the league the previous season. Mattingly came into the big series hitting .326/.375/.561 with 28 HRs and 123 RBIs. He would finish the year having driven in 145 runs, another figure that hadn't been topped by anyone since that Williams fellow in 1949.

Henderson and Mattingly were the brilliant superstars, and they were complemented by a host of past-their-prime veterans. None of them were as great as they had been, but they were all still really good - Willie Randolph, Ken Griffey, Dave Winfield, Don Baylor. They didn't get much from their shortstop (Bobby Meacham) or their catcher (Butch Wynegar), but they were still the highest scoring team in the majors. The job of the pitchers was to keep them in the game. Ron Guidry, as he generally did when Martin was in charge, was having an outstanding year. Ancient Phil Niekro was still a very effective pitcher, and Dave Righetti and Brian Fisher anchored a very good bullpen.

Toronto's offense couldn't match New York's, but they did have a strong attack. No one on the team would score or drive in 100 runs, but almost everyone was productive. The one obvious hole was the leadoff hitter, Damaso Garcia, who at this point in his career hit lots of singles but didn't do anything else. Garcia drew just 15 walks in 146 games, and went 28-15 as a base stealer. Left fielder George Bell, in his second year as a regular, was leading the offense - Bell came into the Yankees series hitting .279/334/.499 with 28 HRs and 90 RBIs. However right fielder Jesse Barfield, in his first year playing every day, was really the team's best hitter. Barfield came into the big series hitting .278/.357/.515 with 22 HRs and 73 RBIs. And this was the first year that the finest outfield arm of the last 100 years ( and I got numbers, if you want 'em!) got to wreak havoc on opposition baserunners - he would rack up 22 BaseRunner Kills in 1985. The Mulliniks-Iorg platoon at 3b was having by far its best season (it was the one year Iorg actually did something useful with his bat), and Willie Upshaw, Lloyd Moseby, Ernie Whitt, and first-year shortstop Tony Fernandez all contributed. A gruesome injury to Buck Martinez, Whitt's platoon partner, created a hole that never would get filled. In desperation, Cox began playing Whitt against LH pitchers, something which hadn't happened in years. Disappointing production from the DH tandem of Jeff Burroughs and Len Matuszek had seen Gillick obtain Al Oliver in July (a straight-up swap for Matuszek) and Cliff Johnson at the end of August.

Stieb, Key, and Alexander were the rotation anchors. Jim Clancy's season had been sidetracked by appendicitis and a mid-season injury, but by September he was back in the rotation and pitching well. The fifth spot, as already noted,  had been a revolving door most of the season. In the bullpen, the big off-season acquisition, closer Bill Caudill, had lost Bobby Cox's trust in mid-season. But in mid-July, the Jays called up the big right-hander they'd received as compensation from Texas when the Rangers had signed Cliff Johnson as a free agent the previous winter. Tom Henke had been posting video game numbers in AAA - in 51.1 IP at Syracuse, he'd allowed 13 hits - and he stepped right into the relief ace job, there to stay for years and years to come.The rest of the bullpen - Dennis Lamp, Gary Lavelle, and Jim Acker - had been solid. Lamp, in particular, had been a revelation in middle relief.

The Mets won a thriller against St. Louis that afternoon. They jumped out to a 6-0 lead, driving the late Joaquin Andujar from the mound in the second inning. But the Cardinals scored 3 of their own in the third and 2 more in the fourth, and the game stayed stuck at 6-5 heading into the ninth. Willie McGee homered off Jesse Orosco in the top of the ninth to tie the game. But in the bottom of the ninth, against St. Louis LH Ken Dayley, Mookie Wilson led off with a single, moved up on a Backman sacrifice, and scored the winning run on a Keith Hernandez single. The Mets were in first place, by a full game over St. Louis.

That evening, Guidry and Stieb went at it in the AL showdown. Stieb was sharp, but wild. After Guidry had retired the Jays in order to start the game, Stieb started his night by walking Henderson. Naturally, he stole second but Stieb retired Mattingly and Winfield to escape the threat. In the second inning, he issued two out walks to Pagliarulo and Randolph, but fanned Meacham to end the inning. And in the top of the third, Tony Fernandez doubled for the game's hit and Ernie Whitt - starting against the LH in Martinez's absence - cracked a home run to put the Jays up 2-0. The Jays would add another run in the next inning, thanks to the speed of Cliff Johnson (a sentence that has never, never before been written in all of human history.) But Johnson reached on an error to lead off, was able to take second on a wild pitch, and was able to score from second on a Barfield single to centre. (Okay, the Yankees were playing Henderson in CF that year.)

The Yankees got on the board in the fifth when Stieb walked Meacham, the ninth hitter, with two out. Meacham stole second and scored on Henderson's single. But the Jays got that one right back on singles by Moseby and Johnson and a sac fly by the rookie first baseman, Cecil Fielder. Stieb stranded yet another walk in the bottom of the sixth, and Guidry struck out Cliff Johnson with two men on to end the top of the seventh. The 7-8-9 hitters were due for the Yankees in the bottom half of the inning.

Mike Pagliarulo flied out to Bell in LF to start the inning, but Stieb then issued his sixth walk of the evening, putting Willie Randolph on first. Yankees shortstop Bobby Meacham - hitting .225/.309/.274 - was due up, and Martin let him hit. And Meacham delivered a tailor-made double play ground ball to shortstop and... somehow Fernandez and Garcia screwed up the play. Everyone was safe. Stieb then issued his seventh walk, loading the bases, and Bobby Cox went to the bullpen. With LH batters Griffey and Mattingly up next, veteran Garry Lavelle came in. Griffey hit a ground ball to third, forcing the runner at second as Randolph came in to score. The ininng should be over, but it's still 4-2 Jays with two out. But Mattingly singled to score Meacham and send the tying run (Griffey) to third. Dave Winfield was the batter, and Cox called on Dennis Lamp, who had failed as the closer in 1984 but been brilliant in middle relief in 1985. Winfield hit a single to tie the game, and the runners moved up on a Fernandez throwing error. That left first base open with a dangerous LH batter, Ron Hassey, at the plate. (Dan Pasqua, a very similar LH batter was on deck.) Lamp pitched to Hassey, who walloped a three run homer to put the Yankees ahead 7-4. Six runs in the inning, all unearned. That was the old ball game, right there. The Jays got one back in the eighth, when Barfield tripled and scored on a ground ball. But they went down quietly in the ninth, and it had been a Very Good Day in the Big Apple. The Mets were in first place, the Yankees had cut the Toronto lead to 1.5 games, and the young Blue Jays, unaccustomed to pennant race pressure, looked very ready to give up the ghost....

But on Friday night, it was the veteran Yankees who bumbled the game away. This was a famously poorly played game, with botched double plays, missed bunt attempts, and blown calls by umpires in addition to what follows. The Yankees went ahead 1-0 when Meacham doubled to left, scoring Hassey. When George Bell misplayed the ball - oops - Meacham lit out for third. But Willie Randolph was still on third, having not noticed Bell's fumble. Oops. But Meacham was able to reverse his tracks and make it safely back to second, as none of the Jays remembered to cover the base. Oops. In the third, Moseby reached base on a Mattingly error. Oops. Mulliniks drew a walk, and with two out, Ken Griffey somehow played Al Oliver's single into a two run triple. Oops. The Jays got another run in the fifth. Moseby struck out, but reached base on the passed ball. Oops. He stole second and continued on to third when the catcher's throw went into the outfield - oops - and scored on an Oliver single. Bobby Cox had an early hook for Jim Clancy, pulling him in the fifth with the Jays ahead 3-1, but Mattingly at the plate with one out and runners on first and third. Lavelle picked his way through the dangerous Mattingly-Winfield-Hassey part of the lineup, allowing just one of the two runners to score. Henderson hit a two out single in the seventh, but Lavelle picked him off. Oops. Henke took over with one out in the eighth, and got the final five outs, three by strikeout. Not one for the time capsule, but the Jays' lead was back to 2.5 games.

On Saturday afternoon, Jimmy Key and spot starter Bob Shirley hooked up in what was a tight see-saw game for five innings. The Yankees had gone in front in the first inning when Henderson walked, stole second, stole third, and scored on a Winfield groundout. The Jays tied it up immediately, on doubles by Barfield and Iorg. The Yanks went ahead again in their second at bat, when Billy Sample led off with a double and scored on a two out single by Rex Hudler. But Jesse Barfield homered to tie the game in the fourth. Shirley pitched into the fifth, before being relieved by Rich Bordi, and it was still 2-2 when the Jays came up in the sixth. Bordi retired Fielder to start the inning, but a Garth Iorg single prompted Billy Martin to bring in his closer, Dave Righetti. In the sixth inning, of a tie game. Oh, the 1980s! It was a different time, kids. And it blew up in Martin's face, in less time than it takes to describe it. Righetti walked Ernie Whitt, putting runners on first and second. Rance Mulliniks doubled to put the Jays up 3-2 (Iorg was playing second base this day, if you're wondering why they were both in the lineup.) Fernandez reached on an infield single, and Lloyd Moseby delivered a two-run single to put the Jays ahead 5-2. With Cliff Johnson up next, Martin yanked his closer and brought in his other late inning ace, Brian Fisher - Heathcliff delivered a two-run single, putting the Jays ahead 7-2. Key allowed a two-run homer to Henderson in the eighth, but went the distance for his 13th win, and the Jays lead was now 3.5 games.

The Sunday afternoon finale, matching Doyle Alexander and Ed Whitson was scoreless through two. In the top of the third, Fernandez, Moseby, and Mulliniks hit singles to score a run and bring George Bell to the plate. Bell doubled to score another and, trailing 2-0 in the third inning, Billy Martin pulled his starter from the game. He brought in the tall (6-7) LH, Dennis Rasmussen, who had spent the first half of the season in the Yankees' rotation before going down with an injury. This was Rasmussen's first appearance in a game since July 22. Cliff Johnson greeted him with a two-run single, putting the Jays up 4-0. Rasmussen got Whitt to hit into a double play, but Rick Leach singled, scored on a Barfield double, and Barfield himself scored when the Yankees threw the ball away. The Jays would stretch the lead to 8-0 in the seventh before the Yankees scored some late runs off Garry Lavelle to make the final 8-5. But they were done, and Billy Martin was cracking up. The Yankees would go into Detroit and lose three in a row (Martin let Guidry  stay in to absorb some additional punishment, and the Tigers raked him for five home runs). Later in the week, Martin would order his young LH third baseman to bat right-handed in a game, for the first time in his life (he struck out), and Martin would conclude his road trip by getting into a bar fight in Baltimore. Billy-Ball!

The two teams met again in Toronto on the final weekend, when it was all but over - the Jays were ahead by three games, and there were only three left to play. Just one Toronto victory was all that was needed. They were one out away from getting it on the Friday night, but Butch Wynegar shocked an entire country with a game tying homer off Tom Henke to tie the game, and after a single and a walk, Lloyd Moseby absolutely butchered a routine fly ball, plating the go ahead run. But on Saturday afternoon, early homers by Whitt, Moseby, and Upshaw and a Bell sac fly staked Doyle Alexander to a 4-0 lead after three innings and the Dour One went the distance.

And there was much rejoicing, amid the many sighs of relief.

Bring on the Royals, we said.