OAKLAND, Calif. -- If the Toronto Blue Jays needed any more proof that this is their year, it came in the late innings of yesterday's marathon victory over the Oakland Athletics in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series.
The Blue Jays were down by five runs going into the eighth inning with super stopper Dennis Eckersley warming up in the A's bullpen, but they came back to win, 7-6, in 11 innings to put Oakland on 24-hour notice in this best-of-seven playoff.
Second baseman Roberto Alomar saved the game with a dramatic two-run home run off Eckersley in the ninth and catcher Pat Borders won the game with a sacrifice fly in the 11th to put the Blue Jays up, three games to one. Right-hander David Cone can put them into the World Series for the first time in club history when he faces Dave Stewart today in the last of three games at the Oakland Coliseum.
Alomar and first baseman John Olerud led a 17-hit attack with almost identical performances. Each had four hits. Each drove in two runs. Each hit a home run. But Alomar's home run provided the most dramatic statement yet that this is a different Blue Jays club than the teams that couldn't get past the playoffs in three previous attempts.
"I just care about the present," Alomar said. "I wasn't here when they couldn't win the big one. I'm here to help them win the big one now, so everyone can stop talking about the past."
The game lasted two more innings. An A's runner was thrown out at the plate in the bottom of the ninth. The Blue Jays won in the 11th when Derek Bell walked and Candy Maldonado singled to set up Borders' game-winning fly ball. Reliever Duane Ward got the victory. Stopper Tom Henke finished up to record his third straight save, but not before the game ran 4 hours, 25 minutes to become the longest in AL playoff history.
Still, it all kept coming back to Alomar in the ninth and a home run that was mildly reminiscent of Kirk Gibson's dramatic game-winner off off Eckersley in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. This one had to be just as sweet for the Blue Jays, who got a little upset when Eckersley got a little too excited after he worked out of the Jays' three-run eighth.
He did an exaggerated six-gun pantomime, then looked into the Blue Jays dugout on his way off the mound, the same kind of thing that caused bad blood between the A's and Blue Jays in the 1989 playoffs.
This time, he didn't have as much to celebrate. He had given up back-to-back RBI singles in the eighth.
"I don't think Eckersley was the Eckersley we've seen before," Alomar said. "His slider wasn't that big and his fastball was flat."
The Blue Jays had the last laugh for a change, a fact that wasn't lost on them after the game. They have never cared for Eckersley's antics and thought them particularly inappropriate yesterday, but he was unapologetic.
pTC "They don't like me anyway," Eckersley said. "I try to get myself geared up. If they take it the wrong way, too bad."
It was an amazing comeback. Starter Jack Morris blew up early, and they went into the eighth down by five. Most of the national television audience likely had changed channels to watch the presidential debate. Everyone knew that Eckersley and his 51 regular-season saves were in the A's bullpen. What could go wrong?
Famous last words.
This game was supposed to belong to Oakland starter Bob Welch, who shook off a checkered postseason past to pitch seven strong innings. He left in the eighth inning with a five-run lead.
Morris came into the series with a reputation as the biggest of the big-game pitchers, a reputation that grew out of his 7-1 postseason record and his 10-inning performance in the deciding game of the 1991 World Series. He did not tarnish it with his losing effort in Game 1, but yesterday's third-inning blowup left him looking like something less than a postseason superman.
The A's had gone down without a hit in the first two innings, but Mike Bordick and Lance Blankenship opened the third with back-to-back singles and Rickey Henderson put them on the scoreboard for the first time with a bloop hit.
There did not seem to be any cause for alarm at that point. Morris has made a habit of giving up two or three runs early. He also has a habit of hanging in until the explosive Toronto offense can put him back on top. That's how he won 21 regular-season games with a 4.04 ERA. The first indication of serious trouble came next, when he couldn't throw a strike to Jerry Browne.
Browne was trying to bunt, but he walked on four pitches to load the bases for the heart of the A's batting order. Ruben Sierra followed with a sacrifice fly, which rated him the distinction of being the only batter to make an out among the first nine to face Morris in the inning.
It just kept getting worse. Harold Baines doubled home a run. Morris intentionally walked Mark McGwire to get to Terry Steinbach, then walked Steinbach on four pitches to bring in the fourth run of the inning. He also gave up an RBI infield hit to Carney Lansford before getting Bordick to hit into a double play in his second at-bat of the inning.
How wild was he? Morris was so wild that Olerud had to make a leaping catch at first base to keep him from bringing home a couple more runs with an errant pickoff throw. Why didn't manager Cito Gaston take him out of the game sooner?
"I didn't think he had his good location," Gaston said, "but Jack has done so much for this ballclub, I felt I had to leave him out there and give him a chance to pitch out of it."
Morris tried to hang in, but he walked the leadoff batter in the fourth and left two batters later.
The A's added a run in the sixth on a two-out RBI single by Sierra, but the five-run lead was not safe. The Blue Jays reeled off five straight hits to open the eighth, including a pair of RBI singles off Eckersley to bring the potential winning run to the plate. He got out of that jam, but found Alomar too hot to handle.
The Blue Jays are one victory away from chasing off the ghosts of playoffs past, but they must win one more. This is the same team that became the first in playoff history to blow a 3-1 advantage in 1985. But yesterday's game may have proven the resiliency of the 1992 edition beyond any reasonable doubt.