TORONTO - The Toronto Blue Jays officially got their money's worth from David Cone last night, riding his right arm to a pivotal playoff victory that sent the American League Championship Series to California all even at a game apiece.
Cone gave up five hits over eight-plus innings of work to defeat the Oakland Athletics, 3-1, and further justify the trade that brought him to Toronto in late August to solidify the Blue Jays starting rotation. The playoffs now move to the Oakland Coliseum for the middle three games of the best-of-seven series.
"It was a huge game for us," Cone said afterward. "Naturally, when you have the home field advantage and you lose the first game that is going to put more pressure on you. I would put this right up there with Game 6 of the World Series with the Mets in '86. We were on the brink of elimination and there was a lot of adversity in that series, too."
It was a masterful performance by Cone, but he couldn't have done it without some help from third baseman Kelly Gruber, who hit a two-run home run in the fifth and scored an insurance run in the seventh to upend a solid performance by Oakland starter Mike Moore.
Cone also needed some an assist from stopper Tom Henke, who came in with a runner on base in the ninth and finished up to record the first postseason save of his career.
"To have Kelly come through in a big way like that after the struggles he has had this year was very big," Cone said. "You just had a feeling that he was going to be the one to step up at some time in this series."
Gruber picked a good time to assert himself. He had struggled through the regular season, fighting a losing battle against injuries and inconsistency to finish with a .229 average and just 11 home runs and 43 RBI. But when Moore got the ball up in the strike zone in the fifth, Gruber made everyone remember why he was a strong candidate for the league's Most Valuable Player Award in 1990.
He has not done much since, but he launched his first postseason home run at just the right time to give his seemingly snake-bitten club a major lift. He would also deliver a double in the seventh and score an important insurance run.
The Blue Jays continue to be haunted by their history, but they chose the right pitcher to carry their pennant hopes into Game 2. Cone has not been around long enough to have any sense for the cult of fatalism that has built up around his team.
He was acquired in late August just for a situation such as this, though the club had hoped that he would be taking the mound to build on a victory by the other hired gun ' Game 1 losing pitcher Jack Morris.
Instead, Cone took the mound in an apparent must-win scenario, even though manager Cito Gaston tried to diminish the sense of urgency before the game.
"It's not life or death," Gaston said. "Even if we don't win, it's not the end of the world. There's enough pressure playing this game. You don't want to put any more pressure than what's needed out there."
Nevertheless, Cone went out there like a man who figured he would have to throw a shutout to even the series. He retired the first six batters he faced in order, then worked out of dangerous situations in the middle innings to maintain the scoreless tie until Gruber put the Blue Jays on top in the fifth.
The A's were robbed by circumstance in the third inning and again in the fifth, missing opportunities to take the lead on both occasions because the ball quite literally did not bounce their way.
Willie Wilson led off the third with a long fly ball that sailed over the head of center fielder Devon White and took a high hop over the fence for a ground rule double. The Astroturf bounce was no surprise, but it still cost Wilson an important base, because he was flying around second when the ball settled into the bleachers.
Moments later, Mike Bordick popped up on a hit-and-run play and the A's went on to squander their first chance to break through against Cone.
The fifth inning took an even stranger turn. The A's pulled off a double steal with one out and appeared to score a run when Cone bounced an apparent wild pitch off the shin guard of catcher Pat Borders. Wilson raced around third on the play and would have scored if the ball had not dribbled into the Blue Jays dugout.
Credit Borders with a heads-up play. He chased the ball down and began to make a diving attempt to keep the ball from going out of play, but pulled away at the last moment and let it go. If he had retrieved the ball, Wilson would have scored easily, but he was sent back to third and Bordick (the trailing runner) was sent back to second.
Home plate umpire Larry Young originally awarded the A's the run, but Gaston challenged the call and third base umpire Joe Brinkman intervened and overruled it.
The rule in such a case is very clear. If a pitched or throw ball ends up in the stands or in the dugout, the runners get one base from where the play began and the ball is dead. It doesn't matter whether the baserunners are in motion.
The A's still were working on a major scoring threat at that point, but Cone completed a great escape. He struck out Walt Weiss on a slider that nipped the outside corner, then struck out Rickey Henderson swinging to get out of the inning.
Give the A's credit for forcing the action. They knew that the Milwaukee Brewers stole eight bases in Cone's Blue Jays debut in late August, and they tried to pressure him on the bases last night. They succeeded in stealing six bases, but had trouble getting the ball out of the infield with runners in scoring position.
"We tried to make a lot of of things happen," A's manager Tony La Russa said, "but they were good enough to hold us off."