TORONTO -- The Toronto Blue Jays have a secret weapon and it may be oft-criticized manager Cito Gaston. Just ask the heroes of last night's 3-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves in Game 3 of the 89th World Series.
It was Gaston who took Candy Maldonado aside a few minutes before zero hour and told him he was going to be the one to win the first World Series game ever played outside the United States.
It was Gaston who told reporters before the game that he wasn't concerned about Kelly Gruber's record-tying 0-for-22 postseason slump. "Who knows," he said. "Maybe tonight he'll break out of it."
It all happened last night. Maldonado delivered a bases-loaded single off Braves stopper Jeff Reardon in the bottom of the ninth to put the Blue Jays up 2-1 in the best-of-seven series.
Gruber broke the dubious record for consecutive hitless at-bats, but when the Blue Jays needed him
most, he delivered a game-tying home run off starter Steve Avery in the bottom of the eighth.
The Blow Jays? Think again. The Glue Jays maybe, because they never let go. They came back from a five-run deficit to win a crucial game against Oakland in the American League Championship Series. They came back on Sunday night to defeat the Braves on a ninth-inning home run by pinch hitter Ed Sprague. They just keep coming back, a quality that reflects well on their low-key manager.
"Cito came up to me tonight and said, 'You've got a chance to be the hero of the game,' " Maldonado said.
That would have been easy to say when the bases were loaded with one out. But Gaston said it three batters earlier, when there was a runner at second base and no one out.
Second baseman Roberto Alomar had opened the ninth with a single and stolen second base. The chain of events that followed were predictable, but that wasn't the point. Sure, the Braves are going to walk Joe Carter. Even a sacrifice bunt by Dave Winfield didn't raise any eyebrows. Sure, you have to walk the pinch- hitting Sprague to set up the double play. The point was, Gaston was thinking about Maldonado's psyche three moves ahead.
"He gives you that confidence," Maldonado said. "He'll do anything to increase your confidence. He'll pat you on the back and make you feel like the man."
Maldonado swung through the first two pitches. Reardon figured to waste the next pitch, but Maldonado figured differently.
"He made me look bad on the first two pitches, so I thought he would throw it [the curve] again," Maldonado said. "I'm very fortunate. If he throws a fastball there, see you later."
There was no doubt about the game-winning hit. Maldonado went with the pitch and hit a line drive to deep right-center that Braves center fielder Otis Nixon didn't even bother to pursue. The spotlight was on Maldonado again, just as it had been in the playoffs when he broke open the final game with a three-run homer.
The spotlight also was on Reardon, who has given up the big hit in each of the last two games.
"It's a tough position to be in, coming into the game needing a strikeout or a [shallow] fly ball," Reardon said. "Anything else is going to score the run, but that's what I get paid to do. I haven't done the job."
The Blue Jays apparently have learned how to do it. They blew a 3-1 lead in the 1985 playoffs against the Kansas City Royals. They lost the playoffs to Oakland in 1989 and to Minnesota in 1991. They came into the postseason shadowed by an army of skeptics, but they have proven their mettle with several hard-fought victories.
It was the Braves who lost their cool. Manager Bobby Cox, who was the Blue Jays manager in 1985, was ejected from the game in the eighth, leaving the club in the hands of another former Toronto manager, Jimy Williams. Could it be that the Blow Jays were in the other dugout?
Braves left-hander Steve Avery was pitching masterfully. He had given up three hits through seven innings and set a season high with eight strikeouts. He appeared to be cruising to a victory that would put the Blue Jays under pressure to win the last two games at SkyDome. That's when Gruber lined the ball into the auxiliary press box behind left field.
The Braves had just taken the lead on an RBI single by 1991 World Series goat Lonnie Smith. They had taken the lead because Otis Nixon reached base on an error by Gruber and had stolen second on a pitchout. It could have been a very deflating loss.
Gruber was all over the place. He also was right in the middle of a strange play in the fourth inning that almost put the Blue Jays in the history books.
The Braves had runners at first and second when David Justice launched a line drive to straightaway center. White made a leaping catch to record the first out and Terry Pendleton passed Deion Sanders on the bases to record the second. This is where it gets interesting.
RF White threw the ball to Alomar, who unwittingly tried to throw out
Pendleton returning to first. Never mind that Pendleton already was out, the throw coaxed Sanders to break from second and hang himself up in a rundown. The first World Series triple play since Bill Wambsganss' unassisted one for Cleveland in 1920 seemed like just a formality. First baseman John Olerud threw to Gruber, who chased Sanders back to second and made a diving tag.
Bob Davidson ruled Sanders safe and touched off the second major umpiring controversy of the series. The video replay clearly showed that Gruber did tag Sanders well before he got back to the base.
Gruber argued animatedly, and why not? He had a chance to write his name in the record book, but he also bore a small measure of the responsibility for letting a historic moment get away. He ran the speedier Sanders all the way back to second when he could have flipped the ball to Alomar for an easier out.
In short, the triple play was possible because of a throw that
should not have been made (the unnecessary throw to first) and it was prevented in part because of a throw that should have been.
The Blue Jays settled for a double play, but it would be enough to help Toronto starter Juan Guzman get out of a serious jam. If White had not made the catch, the Braves would have scored twice and Justice would have been at second with no one out.
Instead, Avery would blink first, giving up a bases-empty home run to Joe Carter in the bottom of the fourth. Carter, who also homered in Game 1, put the Blue Jays in the record book as the first team ever to hit at least one home run in nine straight postseason games.
Braves-Blue Jays scoring
Blue Jays fourth: Alomar grounded to third baseman Pendleton. Carter homered to left on 0-0 count. Winfield popped to second baseman Lemke. Olerud grounded to pitcher Avery. 1 run, 1 hit, 0 errors, 0 left on. Blue Jays 1, Braves 0.
Braves sixth: Nixon grounded to second baseman Alomar. Sanders doubled down the right-field line. Pendleton singled to shortstop, Sanders to third. Justice singled to right, Sanders scored, Pendleton to second. L. Smith lined to right fielder Carter. Bream grounded to first baseman Olerud, pitcher Guzman covering. 1 run, 3 hits, 0 errors, 2 left on. Braves 1, Blue Jays 1.
Braves eighth: Nixon safe on third baseman Gruber's fielding error. Nixon stole second. Sanders popped to shortstop Lee. Pendleton grounded to second baseman Alomar, Nixon to third. Justice intentionally walked. L. Smith singled to left, Nixon scored, Justice to second; Justice out at third, center fielder White to third baseman Gruber. 1 run, 1 hit, 1 error, 1 left on. Braves 2, Blue Jays 1.
Blue Jays eighth: Gruber homered to left on 3-2 count. Borders flied to center fielder Nixon. Lee grounded to shortstop Blauser. White struck out. 1 run, 1 hit, 0 errors, 0 left on. Blue Jays 2, Braves 2.
Blue Jays ninth: Hunter to first base, batting 6th. Alomar singled to center. Wohlers relieved Avery. Alomar stole second. Carter intentionally walked. Winfield sacrificed, first baseman Hunter to second baseman Lemke, Alomar to third, Carter to second. Stanton relieved Wohlers. Sprague, pinch hitting for Olerud, intentionally walked. Reardon relieved Stanton. Maldonado singled to center, Alomar scored, Carter to third, Sprague to second. 1 run, 2 hits, 0 errors, 3 left on. Blue Jays 3, Braves 2.
Toronto Blue Jays vs. Atlanta Braves (Blue Jays lead, 2-1) Game 1: Braves 3, Blue Jays 1
Game 2: Blue Jays 5, Braves 4
Game 3: Blue Jays 3, Braves 2
Tonight: at Toronto, 8:26
Tomorrow: at Toronto, 8:26
Saturday: at Atlanta, 8:26*
Sunday: at Atlanta, 8:29*
(*-if necessary) TV: Channels 11, 9
Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)