`Faceless' Toronto Blue Jays win via depth, balance, clutch play
The 1906 Chicago White Sox were the ``Hitless Wonders,'' and the Miami Dolphins of the early '70s had their ``No-Name Defense,'' but surely no championship team or top contender in any sport has ever been as totally anonymous as this year's Toronto Blue Jays. It's ``magic number time'' for the Jays as their lead over the New York Yankees remains intact while the end of the season draws closer. With a five-game margin and 18 games to play heading into a week-long home stand, only a total collapse can keep them from winning the American League East title. But if you ask people to name some of their players, you get a lot of blank stares.
It isn't as though the Blue Jays came out of nowhere. This team began making noises in 1983 when it finished fourth in the AL East with an 89-73 record. And last year it was clearly the second-best team in the league even though it had to settle for runner-up honors in its own division behind the record-breaking Detroit Tigers.
The names, though, just don't roll off the tongue as they do for other contending teams. There are no household names like Reggie Jackson, George Brett, or Fernando Valenzuela here; no recent World Series heroes like Joaquin Andujar and Willie McGee; no rookie sensation like Vince Coleman; and of course no New York media darlings like Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Dave Winfield, Don Mattingly, or Rickey Henderson.
Toronto has the ballplayers, though.
The outfield of George Bell, Lloyd Moseby, and Jesse Barfield, for example, may not ring too many recognition bells, but Bell ranks among the leaders with 28 home runs and 92 RBIs, Barfield isn't too far behind with 24 and 77, and even the speedster Moseby (34 stolen bases plus some spectacular defense in center field) has shown enough power to hit 15 homers and drive in 65 runs.
There's good offensive balance all through the lineup, as shown by the fact that the team is 3rd in the league in hitting, 1st in stolen bases, 4th in runs scored, and 7th in homers. And then, of course, there is the pitching.
Again, with the possible exception of league earned-run average leader Dave Stieb, the names don't leap out at you -- but the performances do. Doyle Alexander (16-8) and Jimmy Key (13-6) join with Stieb as the top starters and Dennis Lamp is 9-0 in middle relief, while first Bill Caudill and now Tom Henke have closed the door in the all-important late relief spot. As a team, the Jays lead the league in all of the important categories -- fewest hits allowed, fewest walks, and lowest earned-run average.
It's not too surprising, then, that this ``faceless'' team is up there, but even this isn't the whole story. A lot of teams have good statistics, but the ones that win have other things too -- like depth, and balance, and that all-important knack of getting their hits at the right time.
Toronto's balance is pretty evident from the above figures. As for depth, whatever lineup Manager Bobby Cox puts on the field leaves him with at least three starting-type players on the bench. Thus when injuries come along -- as when slugging first baseman Willie Upshaw and All-Star second baseman Damaso Garcia were both sidelined in New York last weekend -- he can shuffle things around without any noticeable loss in overall efficiency. As for timely hitting, one more statistic says it all: the Jays are
batting .270 as a team, but with runners in scoring position, they are hitting .305.
Third baseman Rance Mulliniks, a longtime journeyman infielder who has blossomed into a star at Toronto, leads in this category with a batting average near .400 for such opportunities. Shortstop Tony Fernandez (.358) and Moseby (.321) are others whose averages in clutch situations are much higher than their overall marks.
The Jays have had some problems this year, particularly against left-handed pitching. So two weeks ago they dealt with Texas to reacquire their slugging first baseman-designated hitter of the last two seasons, Cliff Johnson, for the stretch. Johnson's right-handed power, added to the left-handed hitting of former National League batting champion Al Oliver, provides not only bench and DH strength but also some veteran savvy to balance the club's many younger players.
It's a tough combination to beat -- as it proved last weekend. The Yankees had closed to within 21/2 games when the teams met head-on in New York. Conventional wisdom had it that the young, inexperienced team would get the jitters playing before the notorious New York fans with a slender lead that had been slipping away. But the Jays showed their character, winning three out of four to walk out of New York 41/2 games in front.
Every day that goes by at this stage makes the leader that much harder to catch, of course, but nobody in the Toronto camp is counting any chickens yet.
``We know the Yankees are still there,'' Cox said as his team left Boston for the start of its home stand tonight. ``We have to keep going out and doing the job.''
From the way he said it, though, you got the idea he didn't have much doubt that his team was going to do just that -- and maybe go on doing it in the playoffs as well to give Canada its first-ever World Series.