SPORTS

Showdown in the Bronx

HAL QUINN June 15 1987
SPORTS

Showdown in the Bronx

HAL QUINN June 15 1987

Showdown in the Bronx

SPORTS

After playing Western Division teams for more than a month, the Toronto Blue Jays are fi-

nally squaring off again with their American League Eastern Division rivals. Following 22 wins in 35 games against the West, Toronto entertained the Baltimore Orioles for a weekend series. The Orioles return the favor later this week, but not before the Jays play three times in the baseball caldron called Yankee Stadium. Said Jays pitcher John Cerutti of Albany, N.Y., who was scheduled to start the second game in New York: “Any time you play in Yankee Stadium you’re going to be a little more psyched up. It’s going to be a big series.”

Last June, when the Jays made the first of their two annual visits to New York, they trailed the first-place Boston Red Sox by 91/2 games. Last week, as the Jays prepared for the series with Baltimore, Boston was in sixth place and the Yankees led the division. But prior to their series with the Orioles, the Jays trailed the Yankees by just 1V2 games and looked forward to the chance of closing the gap or moving in front themselves.

The Jays have fared well in recent

series at the ball park that is also known as the Bronx Zoo. In September, 1985, Toronto won the last three of a four-game series to all but clinch the division championship. And last season they won four of six games in New York. But the Yankees have enjoyed the return engagements. In the past two seasons, New York has won nine of 13 games in Toronto and they will be back for three more starting on

June 29. Until then,

Yankee Stadium will provide the setting for the first 1987 showdown

between the division’s top two teams. Said Jays first baseman Willie Upshaw, a Yankee until Toronto drafted him in 1977: “I’m looking forward to it. It gives us a chance to see how good we are in our own division, and everybody wants to show that they’re top dog.”

For veterans like Upshaw, it will be strictly a business trip. In his ninth season with the

Jays, the 30-year-old Upshaw’s excitement over the prospect of playing in New York has changed. Recalls Upshaw: “It used to be because of Yankee Stadium. Now it’s not the stadium, it’s because we’re playing the Yankees.” But for younger players, such as rookie pitcher Jeff Musselman, the stadium holds its magic. The 23-year-old Harvard graduate grew up in nearby New Jersey and expects to hear cheers in the stadium from relatives, friends and coworkers from the New Jersey brokerage firm where he puts his economics degree to use in the off-season. Said Musselman: “It’s going to be exciting. You can’t get around the fact that when you play the Yankees there is more adrenalin. It’s the New York aura.”

The aura embraces the classic pinstripe uniforms, the bronze plaques of Yankee immortals behind the centre-field fence, and is confirmed by the record 22 World Series championships. But the Yankees have

not won it all since 1978 and last season they finished second behind Boston in the East. The Jays ended up in fourth place, and as a result, both teams added new faces for this season. Toronto elevated minor leaguers— Musselman, second baseman Manny Lee and designated hitter Cecil Fielder —and drafted pitcher José Núñez from the Kansas City Royals. And at week’s end they signed freeagent catcher Charlie Moore.

New York traded for pitchers Charles Hudson and Rick Rhoden and signed free-agent outfielder Gary Ward. They have helped. Hudson won six of his first eight decisions. Ward is batting close to .300, and Rhoden won six of his first nine decisions. But, like the Jays’, the Yankees’ starters remain

the one potential stumbling block to their pennant hopes.

When veteran righthander Ron Guidry opted for free agency in the off-season, the Yankees asked 44-year-old Tommy John to retract his retirement speech of last year. He did, and now John and starter Joe Niekro, 42, are the team’s old folks. John’s record last week was an impressive five wins and just one loss, and Niekro’s was three wins and three losses. But neither the Yankees nor their

rivals are convinced that the veterans can sustain that performance for the entire season. Still, Guidry has resigned with the team, and the Yankees also have one of the game’s best relief pitchers, Dave Righetti. Last week he ranked second in the American League with 12 saves. But Toronto’s Tom Henke was third with nine.

Indeed, the Blue Jays’ relief pitching is now one of the team’s strengths. In Toronto’s first 50 games, the bullpen staff—Henke, Mark Eichhorn, Musselman and José Núñez—boasted a combined earned-run average of just 2.28 with nine wins, four losses and 12 saves. But the starters won 20 and lost 16 with an ERA of 4.04. Eichhorn, last year’s rookie sensation, has already won six games. This season’s rookies— Musselman and Núñez—have pitched well. And last week left-hander reliever Gary Lavelle, 38, returned after surgery on his elbow. Lavelle has not pitched since 1985.

But some Toronto starters have had problems. Prior to the Baltimore series, Cerutti and Joe Johnson had won just four games between them, while losing seven. And right-hander Dave Stieb, with four wins, three losses and a 4.84 ERA, has managed to make it into the seventh inning just twice in 11 starts. Said Stieb, scheduled to start the first game against the Yankees: “I really don’t have an answer for it. Maybe I just try to do too much.”

With six wins in nine decisions, lefthander Jimmy Key— scheduled to pitch the third game in New York— has confirmed his status as the team’s most reliable starter. And righthander Jim Clancy enjoyed a month of May to remember. After winning and losing 14 games last season, Clancy won five games in May, lost just one, recorded a 1.71 earned-run average and was named pitcher of the month in the American League. Explained the modest 31-year-old in his 11th season with the Jays: “Things just came together for me. And the team scored a lot of runs for me too.”

Scoring runs is not a problem for either team. In their first 52 games, the Yankees—with Rickey Henderson and sluggers Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield—scored 277 runs and hit 65 home runs. In their first 50 games, the Jays—with sluggers George Bell and Jesse Barfield—scored 245 times and hit 61 homers. Said Barfield, anticipating a season-long pennant race with New York: “If we play the way we’re capable of playing, we’re going to win it. If we make mistakes, then we’re in trouble. It’s as simple as that.”

HAL QUINN

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