ATLANTA -- The Toronto Blue Jays are hoping that the sequel will be better than the original. Stand by for "Hired Gun II," the story of pitcher David Cone's attempt to succeed where Jack Morris could not.
The Blue Jays had the Atlanta Braves right where they wanted them Thursday night. SkyDome was ready to rock. The parade route was all mapped out. The champagne was chilling. Morris was signed with just that kind of moment in mind, but his reputation as a big-game pitcher suffered in the 7-2 loss that sent the 89th World Series back to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium for Game 6 tonight.
Now it is up to Cone, who was acquired in late August to solidify the Blue Jays' rotation for a stretch drive that was tougher than expected. The trade paid off in September, and its significance was magnified when Lonnie Smith broke up Game 5 with a fifth-inning grand slam and left Morris winless in four postseason starts.
Whom would you feel more comfortable sending to the mound -- a 17-game winner who has played in a pressure-cooker for most of his career, or Todd Stottlemyre, who is 0-2 with an 8.31 ERA in his two career postseason starts? Which one would be best able to turn the magnitude of the game to his team's advantage?
Not that Cone has been overpowering in the postseason. He hasn't. He won Game 2 of the American League Championship Series against the Oakland Athletics (which was a crucial game), but he was the losing pitcher in Game 5 of the ALCS and did not pitch particularly well in his first start of the World Series in Game 2.
The Blue Jays are fortunate to have Cone in this situation because he hadn't been around Toronto long enough to get that here-we-go-again feeling Thursday night when the grand slam shifted momentum to the Braves.
Instead, he said, he got that this-is-my-chance feeling and began to look forward to the opportunity to bring home the World Series trophy.
"It's a unique situation," said Cone, who will face left-hander Steve Avery tonight. "You're sitting there hoping to end it right there, but you know this is going to be a tremendous opportunity. I relish it. There are a lot of pitchers sitting at home who would love to be in my position.
"The moment he hit the ball, your perspective changes. You still hope that the club can come back. You still have confidence right up to the end. But you also are getting mentally prepared to pitch the next game."
Cone knows he is a hired gun, and it doesn't bother him a bit. He will be eligible to file for free agency next week, and he knows a strong performance in the deciding game of the World Series can only help his market value. Look what it did for Morris a year ago.
He also knows that one more mediocre performance will leave the Blue Jays in an unpleasant situation. They were the first team to blow a 3-1 lead in a best-of-seven league championship series (1985). They blew a 3 1/2 -game division lead during the final week of the 1987 season. They do not need another well-publicized collapse to tarnish a successful season. Cone is aware of this, but he thinks the law of averages is on his side.
"I feel like I'm due," he said. "I've been happy with my performance for the Jays, but the last two games have been a disappointment. I could have nailed down the ALCS and didn't do it, and I was much too tentative in my last start here against the Braves. I was not as aggressive as I should have been, especially with runners on third base and less than two outs. I have to be more aggressive. I have to go after people. That's something I'm planning to do tomorrow [tonight]."
The Braves, of course, are planning to do the same thing they did in Game 2 -- run him ragged. Cone has been vulnerable to the stolen base throughout the postseason, so Braves manager Bobby Cox will have speedy Deion Sanders in the starting lineup again.
Cone allowed the Braves' running game to affect his performance in Game 2, but he hopes to neutralize it by keeping Sanders and Otis Nixon off the bases tonight.
"They've got a little different look with Deion in there," Cone said. "To be honest, I was preparing to face Ron Gant. Deion has given me a lot of trouble. If Deion and Nixon get on base, it's tougher to make quality pitches, so I have to try and keep them off the bases."
If he does not succeed, the Morris/Cone strategy will have gone for naught in the postseason, but manager Cito Gaston said he will not judge either of them solely on the postseason.
"I would never say I am disappointed in Morris or Cone," Gaston said. "I've never been one to say 'What have you done for me lately?' Without them, we wouldn't be here. Jack would love to have a couple of pitches back, and Cone has been a little wild with his control. If he's on, we should have an excellent chance of winning that ballgame."
Toronto Blue Jays
vs. Atlanta Braves
% (Blue Jays lead, 3-2)
Game 1: Braves 3, Blue Jays 1
Game 2: Blue Jays 5, Braves 4
Game 3: Blue Jays 3, Braves 2
Game 4: Blue Jays 2, Braves 1
Game 5: Braves 7, Blue Jays 2
Today: at Atlanta, 8:41
Tomorrow: at Atlanta, 8:29*
TV: Channels 11, 9
% Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)