As usual, Jays play hard to get

CHICAGO — CHICAGO -- At the end of the night, as the Blue Jays celebrated amid the sweet stench of champagne and sweat, Roberto Alomar put it best: "This team, we just have something."

What they mostly had, on the night they wrapped up the American League pennant, was Dave Stewart. We'll get to him in a minute.


What they had throughout this entire series with the White Sox, ** which mirrored their regular season, was a talent for not taking the big fall.

Think about it. The White Sox got close to the Jays. They won the third and fourth games in Toronto. They tied the series. They got close enough to believe they had a chance.


Then the bottom fell out.

Sound familiar?

It should. It's the story of the Orioles' life the last two seasons. The story of all the pretenders in the AL East as they've tried to catch the Jays.

Call it a piece of magic, if you want. You swear you've got the

Jays by the throat, then you blink and play a couple of games and, by golly, they've got you.

The Orioles and Yankees chased the Jays for months this season. Remember when the standings were one big traffic jam? Well, if you go back and look it up, you will notice that the Jays never let anyone pass them. Not for more than a day. Get close? Sure. Pull even? Sure. But get ahead of the Jays? Put them in the hole? Make them sweat? Never happened.

There were just four days in the last three months of the season when the Jays weren't alone or tied for first, even though their lead was seldom more than a game. The other teams just couldn't get it done.

Same with the White Sox.


"It was like the season: We never let them get into a position where they could put the pressure on us," Alomar said. "We managed to always keep it on them. They always felt they had to win the next game. It's a lot easier to play that way."

It all ended on a cold night when the wind blew and the dugouts were heated and the people sat in the stands with blankets over their legs, drinking hot chocolate. A winter postscript for a summer season.

It ended when Stewart simply refused to give in. He is 36, not the pitcher he was when he was a 20-game winner with the Athletics. His fastball has lost valuable inches, and his forkball doesn't have the same bite. But the force of his will is remarkable when the games matter most.

The Jays staked him to a two-run lead in the second inning last night. He gave it right back in the next inning. When he was given another lead in the fourth -- the Sox committed two errors, leading to an unearned run -- he wasn't about to yield again.

The Sox put runners on base with less than two out in the fifth, sixth and seventh, but each time Stewart kept a run from scoring. He left in the eighth with a one-run lead, having allowed but four hits. He was the winner when the Jays blew it open in the ninth.

His record in league championship series games is 8-0. Four times he has won the game that clinched the pennant.


"It's never been done before, and it'll probably never be done again," American League president Bobby Brown said as he awarded Stewart the trophy as the series MVP. "It's tough to go .500 in the playoffs. You're pitching against the best teams and usually the best pitchers. To go 8-0 is just a fabulous accomplishment."

Said Stewart: "I'm living a childlike dream as an adult. All I can say is that I've been through this situation time and time again, and when you do it that often, after a while it doesn't seem too pressure packed."

He spoke eloquently about the source of his steady nerves.

"It's hereditary," he said. "My father was a longshoreman. He worked very hard until he died. My mother had to take over. She raised eight kids and did what she had to do to put bread in our mouths and shoes on our feet. When you grow up with examples like that, you understand that you just have to set your sights on something and go get it done."

Last night, that something was carrying the Jays to their second straight pennant. How they beat the Sox was not hard to figure.

Sox ace Jack McDowell lost twice. The Jays' aces, Juan Guzman and Stewart, were 4-0. The Sox couldn't find an effective designated hitter and struggled to hit with runners on base. The Jays didn't.


"They just played better than we did," Sox manager Gene Lamont said. "We didn't play as well as we thought we would. Still, we had Stewart on the ropes in both of his games. We couldn't knock him out."

L The same could be said for the entire team. All season long.