Most fans today are aware of the Blue Jays winning the AL East Pennant in 1985, 1989, and 1991 before winning the World Series in 1992 and 1993. What fans may not know or remember is of those first three teams, they may have been second best to their 1987 team that missed out on the playoffs.
In the 1987, the Blue Jays were sending out arguably the top outfield in the major leagues with George Bell in left field, Lloyd Moseby manning centre field, and the cannon arm of Jesse Barfield in right field. Moseby was just four home runs shy of having a 30-30 season as he had 39 stolen bases. Barfield was a beast throwing out runners with 17 assists from the outfield to go with 28 home runs at the plate. Bell may have had the single greatest season by a Blue Jays player at the plate as he won the AL MVP with his 47 home runs, 134 RBI and .308 batting average.
The infield was led by the magician work of Tony Fernandez who took home his second of four consecutive gold gloves at shortstop. At the plate, Fernandez batted .322 with 29 doubles and 8 triples to go with 32 stolen bases. Ernie Whitt, who had served the team behind the plate for years and is commonly known as the best catcher in Blue Jays history, also had his career season with 19 home runs and 75 RBI while batting .269.
With all the offence you need, the team was also stacked on the mound in their starting rotation. Jimmy Key also had a career season and finished second to Roger Clemens for the Cy Young Award. Key led the American League in ERA, WHIP and Hits/9IP as he had a 17-8 record. Jim Clancy picked up 15 wins that season and Blue Jays superstar Dave Stieb picked up 13 wins. Even Jeff Musselman picked up 12 wins out of the bullpen.
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To finish out the games, Tom Henke would lead all American League closers’ in saves with 34 while posting a 2.49 ERA and 0.93 WHIP. This team had the make-up to not only win the AL East, but to take a legitimate shot at the World Series. So what happened?
It was September 27, 1987 and the Blue Jays had seven games to go. They were currently on a seven game winning streak, which included winning the first three games of a four game series against the second place Detroit Tigers. A win that day would put Toronto up by 3.5 games and have a strangle hold on the division.
In was the top of the eighth inning, Jim Clancy had just pitched seven shutout innings and manager Jimy Williams elected to bring in Tom Henke for a six out save attempt. Henke had a clean eighth inning getting three quick outs and came out for the ninth inning. That is where the tide turned; Kirk Gibson led off the ninth in only a way he knows how and hit a home run to tie the game. The teams would share runs in the eleventh, but Detroit would eventually win in the 13th inning and come within 1.5 games of first place.
During the series, the Blue Jays were handed a huge blow by one of the dirtiest plays in baseball history by Bill Madlock. During a double play attempt in the first game of the series, Nelson Liriano was setting Fernandez up for a 4-6-3 play and during Fernandez’s throw to first base, Madlock left the base line and took Fernandez out thigh high. Fernandez would fall hard and break his forearm, thus missing the remainder of the season. Madlock would later say “It wasn’t the slide that hurt him, it was the wood around second base he came down on, I had nothing to do with that”. You can see the clip here.
The Blue Jays still had a good lead with under a week to go and they were playing the third place Milwaukee Brewers at home for a three game series. The Blue Jays would get swept in the series while being outscored 16-9, which meant Toronto would go into the final series of the year in Detroit. The Blue Jays were up one game and playing the team chasing them; they were in control of their destiny.
In Game one of the series, Fernandez’s replacement was light-hitting Manuel “Manny” Lee and he started the game off with his second career home run, which was a three-run shot to give the Blue Jays a 3-0 lead. The offence stopped there as Detroit would come back to win 4-3 and tie the series. In Game 2 of the series, Toronto would have two separate leads in the game, but again would lose in extra innings on an Alan Trammell single in the 12th and the Tigers would be up by a game.
The season would come down to the last game of the year, the Blue Jays would send Jimmy Key to the mound against Frank Tanana. And like Key had done all year, he gave the Blue Jays every chance to win. He would pitch a complete game one hitter, striking out eight. The only blemish on his line was a second inning solo home run to Larry Herndon. As you know by the theme of the article Toronto, would lose the game and Tanana would throw a complete game shutout.
Toronto would finish the season 96-66 and two games behind the Detroit Tigers. The Blue Jays would have the second best record in all of baseball and would have been 11 games ahead of the AL West winning Minnesota Twins. You have to wonder, in all those close games in the last week, how would have Fernandez impacted a couple of those last seven games the Blue Jays lost?