In resisting the temptation to celebrate prematurely, the Toronto Blue Jays need only consider the example of Dennis Eckersley.
After matching the biggest playoff comeback in history, the Blue Jays have a 3-1 edge in their AL series with Oakland and can clinch their first World Series berth with a victory today. All it took for Toronto's 7-6 win Sunday was a shocking, game-tying homer and 11 innings.Being so close to winning the American League pennant after the five-game failures of 1991 and 1989, it would seem easy for Toronto to get comfortable, even emotional.
Emotions are what started Eckersley's troubles.
His fist-pumping display as he struck out pinch-hitter Ed Sprague to end the eighth stirred the Blue Jays. And the next inning, Roberto Alomar's homer capped the rally that erased the A's five-run lead.
Toronto's players spilled out of the dugout to congratulate Alomar, even though the game was far from won. They know better, though.
"It means a lot to the team," left fielder Candy Maldonado said of the victory. "But you have to control your emotions. We still have a tough battle in front of us."
Manager Cito Gaston knows, having witnessed the team's 1985 collapse. The Blue Jays had a 3-1 series edge against Kansas City, only to lose in seven games.
"We've been 3-1 before, so it's not over with," Gaston said. "The job is not finished yet. We win one more ball game and it's done. Perhaps it will bury all those things which have been said, which I've disagreed with all these years anyway. But we have to win another game first."
"This is a completely different team, completely different circumstances," said reliever Tom Henke, a member of the 1985 club who got his third save Sunday. "We're staying focused. We want to win and get this thing over with."
Game 2's winner, David Cone, can end it without going back to the SkyDome. He faces A's ace Dave Stewart, the Game 1 starter, today.
Pat Borders' sacrifice fly in the 11th completed the Blue Jays' stunning comeback after starter Jack Morris was hit hard early.
A rejuvenated Rickey Henderson revitalized the A's as they knocked out Morris after 3 1-3 innings and took a 6-1 lead after seven. Only once before had a team overcome a five-run deficit in the playoffs - Oakland trailed Boston 5-0 in the second inning before winning 10-6 in 1988.
"You look back and you think a 6-1 lead is pretty healthy," Eckersley said. "Who blows 6-1 leads? It's against reason."
That Eckersley, baseball's premier closer, could blow a save in such a fashion seemed against reason, too. But for the second straight day, he was ineffective, and this time it cost Oakland the game.
Eckersley, who had 51 saves in the regular season, was brought in early and hit immediately. John Olerud and Maldonado smacked RBI singles on Eckersley's first two pitches, making it 6-4.
"I think Eckersley wasn't the Eckersley we've seen before," Alomar said. "His fastball wasn't sinking."
Alomar had four hits, including the homer and a double that began the rally in the eighth inning. He also cut down the potential winning run at home plate in the ninth with a throw from second base.
Alomar's big shot brought back memories of Kirk Gibson's pivotal homer, also off Eckersley, in the 1988 World Series.
"I remember Kirk Gibson did it to him," Alomar said. "Why not me?"
Devon White led off the ninth with a single that skipped past Henderson in left for a two-base error. That brought up Alomar, and he launched a drive high and deep to right, as did Gibson in the ninth inning of Game 1 of the 1988 Series for a Los Angeles victory, for the tying home run.
Morris took Eckersley's fist-pumping personally and savored the revenge provided by Alomar.
"Ol' Eck stuck it to us and gave us a good reason to stick it to him," Morris said.
The A's had the potential winning run thrown out at the plate in the ninth. Harold Baines opened with a single off reliever Duane Ward and pinch-runner Eric Fox stole second and took third on slugger Mark McGwire's first sacrifice bunt of the season.