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Get ready to crown new champs


OAKLAND, Calif. -- Three times the Toronto Blue Jays have won the AL East, only to stumble in the league championship series. It's not going to happen this year. The Jays are too good, and they're facing an Oakland team gasping in its final hour.

Close as this series has been -- Toronto has outscored Oakland only 13-10 -- not even the resourceful Tony La Russa can pull it out. Get ready for the first World Series in Canada. Get ready for the Blow Jays to purge their demons for good.

Yesterday's 7-5 defeat left the A's trailing two games to one. To win the series, they need to take both remaining games at the Oakland Coliseum, then split in Toronto. It's too much to ask for this team of Bordicks, Steinbachs and Blankenships.

You've got to like Toronto again today, with Mr. Clutch (Jack Morris) facing Mr. Choke (Bob Welch). Morris is 7-2 with a 2.76 ERA in the postseason, Welch 3-3 with a 5.01. It's practically a no-brainer, and if Morris falters, there's always David Cone -- albeit on three days' rest.

The A's traded Jose Canseco, and they're missing the injured Dave Henderson, but their problems go deeper than that. This was a team built on pitching and defense, and yesterday it imploded with three wild pitches and three errors.

For all that, the A's still only lost by two runs -- in part because

they left 12 men on base, in part because third-base coach Rene Lachemann killed a potentially huge rally in the fourth inning by sending Mark McGwire home on a shallow fly ball.

Oakland had tied the score against Juan Guzman, and had the bases loaded with none out when Mike Bordick lofted his 275-foot fly to right. Joe Carter threw out the plodding McGwire easily for the double play, and Walt Weiss grounded out to end the inning.

Somewhere in Aberdeen, Orioles third-base coach Cal Ripken Sr. was smiling. The Ripper guaranteed Tim Hulett would have been out under similar circumstances in the loss that knocked the Orioles out of the pennant race. Look what happened to McGwire!

"Our style is, when in doubt, be aggressive," La Russa explained. "I very rarely get upset about aggressive things that go against us. 'Lach' has had an outstanding couple of years. It's hard to look at one play as the reason we lost and they won. So much happened in that game."

No kidding. Guzman not only escaped the bases-loaded jam in the fourth, but another with two out in the sixth. Weiss also ended that threat, grounding out on the first pitch after a walk to pinch hitter Jerry Browne. He has gone hitless in 25 straight playoff at-bats with runners on base.

A's starter Ron Darling, meanwhile, entered the game with every advantage -- he was 8-4 with a 2.90 ERA in the daytime, and had thrown a pair of two-hit shutouts against the Jays. But he allowed an unearned run in the second, then leadoff homers by Roberto Alomar and Candy Maldonado in the fourth and fifth.

True to form, the Jays nearly blew leads of 2-0, 5-2 and 6-4, but for once, they held on. They're getting production from nearly everyone in their lineup -- yes, even Maldonado, who began the day 8-for-68 (.118) with no homers in the postseason. More and more, it looks like their year.

Seven of their nine regulars have extra-base hits in this series -- everyone except Joe Carter, who is 2-for-12, and John Olerud, who delivered the game-tying hit in Game 1. Maldonado twice broke up no-hitters by Darling this season. Yesterday, it was simply his turn.

True, manager Cito Gaston needed to summon closer Tom Henke in the eighth after setup men Duane Ward and Mike Timlin faltered. But try as they might, the A's never grabbed the lead. Rickey Henderson is 1-for-10 in this series. McGwire keeps crushing the ball, but it either goes foul or gets caught.

This is a scrappy team, a valiant team, a purists' team much like Pittsburgh. But La Russa is in the same uncomfortable position as Pirates manager Jim Leyland. The other team is better, and there's not much he can do about it.

The A's had won six straight playoff games at the coliseum before yesterday. Now the whole thing is starting to crumble. Dave Stewart made a courageous stand in Game 1 and Mike Moore pitched decently in Game 2. But Oakland can't match Morris, Cone and Guzman, and that's just for starters.

The middle-relief corps is not what it once was -- yesterday it allowed four runs in 2 2/3 innings -- and the offense isn't as fearsome. La Russa was correct in saying the A's "showed a lot of heart," but they're just a tad short, and with 14 free agents, bound to decline.

It could have been different yesterday. A hit here, a hit there, and the Jays would be reliving their sorry history once more. But this isn't the same matchup it was in 1989, when the A's won in five games. No matter how close it appears, it's a changing of the guard.

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