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With tip of cap, Key says thanks, maybe goodbye


TORONTO -- Jimmy Key is so humble, he rarely tips his cap to the cheering SkyDome fans as he walks off the mound. Last night was different. Last night was special. Last night, Key not only lifted his cap, he returned the applause.

There he was, the truest Blue Jay, slapping his glove with his pitching hand, making an inaudible thump amidst the deafening roar. Nine years in Toronto, and Key wanted to say thanks. He got his World Series start. He made it a beauty. Now he was fulfilled.

The poignancy of the moment hit only as he strolled toward the dugout. Like so many participants in this postseason, the veteran left-hander is a free agent. Last night might have been his final start in Toronto. It was easily his most memorable.

Key, 31, was brilliant for 7 2/3 innings, retiring 16 straight hitters at one point, striking out six, walking none. He left with a 2-1 lead, and relievers Duane Ward and Tom Henke protected it, moving the Jays within one victory of their first world championship.

It could happen tonight, when Jack Morris attempts to become the first pitcher since Allie Reynolds (1952-53) to win the final game of back-to-back World Series. Morris will face John Smoltz in a rematch of last year's Game 7. He's 0-2 this postseason, but who would bet against him now?

Ironically, Morris is only in this position because of Key. Manager Cito Gaston used a three-man rotation in the American League playoffs, but added Key for the World Series. Morris, naturally, wanted to start Games 1, 4 and 7. He wound up with 1 and 5.

This wasn't about sentiment, for Morris and David Cone pitched poorly on three days' rest against Oakland. But Gaston readily admitted he was delighted to give Key a start. The manager joined Toronto as a batting coach in 1982. Key was a third-round draft pick that same year.

The first time Key pitched for the Blue Jays, Ronald Reagan was bidding for re-election. It was April of 1984, and a manager named Bobby Cox needed a reliever to face Rod Carew. Key got the future Hall of Famer to hit into a double play. He then retired his next 12 hitters to earn the win.

"He helped me stick around for a few years," said Cox, who managed the Blue Jays from 1982 to '85 before moving to the Braves as general manager and then manager. "I remember him as a good pitcher. He looked every bit as good tonight as he did years ago."

It was no great surprise. Key, a two-time All-Star, is one of only two pitchers to win 12 games in each of the past eight seasons (Frank Viola is the other). Until recently, he was always one of Toronto's top three starters. But after the club added Morris and David Cone to go with Juan Guzman, he dropped to No. 4.

That knocked him out of the playoff rotation, even though he won his final five decisions with a 1.56 ERA. Key had every reason to complain, but never said a word. After so many years of frustration with Toronto, he, too, wanted only to win.

He pitched three scoreless relief innings against Oakland. He stayed ready by throwing every other day. And when Gaston announced he would pitch Game 4, he told the manager he was grateful. True, he feared rustiness following the layoff. On the other hand, the Braves had never seen him pitch.

"I would have been disappointed if I didn't get a chance to pitch in the World Series, no question," Key said. "I waited a long time to get here. I've been through some disappointments in the playoffs. I just wanted the chance to pitch."

At first, it appeared Gaston's decision might backfire. Otis Nixon led off the game with a single. Key picked him off, but then Jeff Blauser hit another single and stole second. Catcher Pat Borders thought Key was trying to throw too hard. As a result, his ball wasn't sinking.

Key is ineffective when he's off with his location, but he quickly settled down. The Braves got only one other hit until Ron Gant's leadoff double in the eighth. Brian Hunter followed with a bunt single, but Key got the next two outs, with Atlanta scoring only one run.

It helped that Damon Berryhill popped up a bunt with Hunter under orders to steal second. It helped that third baseman Kelly Gruber recovered a ball that ricocheted off Key's arm to throw out Mark Lemke. Still, Henke called it "the best game I've seen him throw in a long time." Key deserved the breaks.

He left with the lead.

The crowd rose in tribute.

The World Series could have ended right there.

"It was the best moment of my career," Jimmy Key said. "I won't ever forget it."

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