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Blue Jays just trying to wing it American League


TORONTO -- Yes, Roberto Alomar had time to talk with an out-of-town reporter, but first he wanted to know the intended subject.

The Toronto Blue Jays' outstanding second baseman sensed what was coming. He was only hoping against hope to be wrong.

He wasn't.

"The fall of the Blue Jays?" Alomar said, wincing. "Man, I have been talking about that one too many times.

"Everybody coming to my locker, it's the same thing. 'What happened to the Blue Jays? . . . What happened to the Blue Jays?' "

Answer: They have turned into pigeons.

Since defeating the Philadelphia Phillies last October and becoming the first major-league team to win back-to-back world championships since the New York Yankees in 1977 and 1978, Toronto has fallen on hard times.

Check out the American League East standings. Start at first place, then go downward to second to third to fourth to fifth, as in last. There are the Blue Jays, holding a 38-48 record and sitting 12 1/2 games behind the pacesetting New York Yankees going into last night.

The Jays already have lost 12 series, one fewer than they did all last season. They are 14-29 on the road (including 6-22 on grass) and 21-36 at night.

L To echo everyone's thoughts: What happened to the Blue Jays?

"For us," said designated hitter Paul Molitor, who boasts the AL's sixth-best batting average (.342), "the first half has been a tale of two quarters.

"The first quarter was a continuation of the offensive prowess and struggles with pitching. In the second quarter, the pitching kind of leveled off, but then it was: What happened to the offense?"

Unlike the Phillies, Toronto kept its lineup intact throughout the first half. Manager Cito Gaston was able to write in the names of his first five hitters -- center fielder Devon White, Alomar, Molitor, right fielder Joe Carter and first baseman John Olerud -- almost every day.

Those five cogs averaged .301 with just under 11 home runs and 52 RBIs (Carter had the ungodly sum of 80). But somehow, the team batting average wound up at .267, 12 points lower than the final 1993 total, and the Jays were last in the league in runs.

Among the starting pitchers, Pat Hentgen fared well with an 11-5 record and a 3.16 ERA. Todd Stottlemyre (5-6, 3.98) was respectable. For Al Leiter (3-5, 5.07), Juan Guzman (8-9, 5.97) and Dave Stewart (5-8, 6.13), the numbers were rather unsightly.

Forget all that, Gaston advised last weekend as the Jays took two of three from the Kansas City Royals.

The Blue Jays' first-half woes, he said, were traceable almost exclusively to the season-long absence of closer Duane Ward and setup man Danny Cox.

Ward, who led the AL with 45 saves last season, finally ditched a rehabbing attempt last Friday and underwent surgery for shoulder miseries. It wasn't until two days later that Cox, who also had been rehabbing, made his first major-league appearance of the season.

"Ward and Cox weren't here early, and that snowballed into a lot of things," Gaston said. "The seventh through ninth innings used to be lights-out time. Now they're pretty tough."

In ninth innings, the Jays have been outscored 47-24. They have blown nine of 22 save opportunities.

"That plays on your mind after a while," Gaston said.

Gaston has been the picture of calmness while his team has sagged. With few exceptions, he said, that has been his nature for all of his 50 years.

He recalled once having lost his temper over an umpire's call while coaching first base for the Jays.

"I came into the dugout and kicked a door," he said. "Found out pretty fast it was made of steel. Broke my toe."

Gaston and the Jays endured a microcosm kind of night last Friday. After learning of Ward's need for surgery, Gaston slipped on wet steps while walking from the clubhouse to the dugout and injured his shoulder.

Then came the game. K.C.'s David Howard hit a deep drive to center. The ball hit the top of the trash-bag-style wall, just beyond the leaping White's reach, then hit White's right knee on its descent and bounced over the wall. Home run.

Later, Royals left fielder Vince Coleman juggled a liner by Darnell Coles and finally made the catch by using his glove to pin the ball against his left hip.

Despite those two bad breaks, the Jays entered the ninth with a 5-4 lead. They lost, 6-5, as new closer Darren Hall surrendered the tying run and winning run on a pair of moderately struck ground balls through the infield.

Gaston was answering post-game questions when a late-arriving radio reporter hustled into the office. While trying to stick a microphone into Gaston's face, the man bumped into his chair.

"It's all right, Mike," Gaston said, sweetly. "I'll move over for you."

Said Gaston: "My belief is, in tight situations the calmest guy is going to win out. If the manager shows panic, eventually the players are going to show panic. There's nothing to panic about. I'm healthy, my family's healthy and no one around here is dying, that I know of.

"I don't think [remaining calm] comes easy because I don't like to lose. But as long as you know why you're losing, it's easier to deal with. We haven't had a full-strength ballclub."

Batting coach Larry Hisle said Gaston is comfortable with who and where he is and what he has done and that's why he doesn't show anger, nor frustration.

"He feels he is able to get the most from his players with a cool, calm demeanor," Hisle said. "But the one thing the players can be guaranteed of, his kindness cannot be taken for a weakness. I haven't seen it happen."

Said catcher Pat Borders: "I can't say I ever expected Cito to come in here [and go ballistic], but I've seen it done by other guys for lesser reasons than he's had this season."

Toronto's fans have been amazingly accepting of the downturn. Bad moments are greeted by groans, but not boos, and Gaston has avoided almost all varieties of flak.

Before last Saturday's game, Gaston stood for about 20 minutes right in front of the stands behind home plate, conversing with Royals manager Hal McRae. Not once did anyone yell anything negative.

It wasn't as if no one was around. The Jays continue to lead the AL in average home attendance (49,198).

Carter is among the many who are taking things in stride.

"The great thing about baseball is that it can't be predicted," Carter said. "If baseball were predictable, it wouldn't be any fun. We're not robots. You can win two World Series then struggle to get to .500. We're proof.

"Over 162 games, a team can't be up for every one. But no one is going to do their relaxing against us, right?"

Said Alomar: "We're trying to find ways to win. It's just not happening. You can't be in first place all the time. . . . The media is making a big issue out of this. How about the teams that are always at the bottom? Why not write about them."

Molitor understands the Blue Jays' frustration.

"When you're accustomed to success, dealing with failure becomes problematical," he said. "I don't sense an atmosphere of concession, but it's definitely been difficult to cope. We're not used to looking up from the bottom of the division."

Molitor paused. He leaned back in his chair, cupped his hands behind his head and allowed a whimsical look to come onto his face.

"I'm still envisioning a situation," he said, "where we win maybe 30 of 40 games. All of a sudden, people that forgot about us have to pay attention again. . . ."

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