1987 redux? Blue Jays dismantled again, cling to MLB playoffs by their fingernails

New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays
New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays / Mark Blinch/GettyImages

Knowing their team, Toronto Blue Jays fans probably anticipated that things were unlikely to go well against a pitching-for-the-Cy-Young Gerrit Cole on Wednesday night.

Even still though … what the heck was that?

A night after losing 2-0, the Jays were comprehensively thrashed 6-0 by the Yankees at the Rogers Centre, as Cole went the distance in a two-hit shutout. With four games remaining in the season, the Jays are now clinging to a playoff spot by their fingernails.

In fact, things have gotten so desperate, that the one thing which no Blue Jays fan wants to hear is starting to get mentioned – 1987.

1987: The Greatest Collapse in Franchise History

Heading into the final week of the season, the 1987 Blue Jays were sitting pretty.

Led by soon-to-be-MVP George Bell, they had just won their third game in a row against the second-place Tigers, and seventh overall, reaching 96 wins and opening up a 3.5 game lead over Detroit with seven games to play.

The victory was not all roses, as All Star and Gold Glove shortstop Tony Fernández had been seriously injured on a slide at second base which was either good hard baseball or a ridiculous attempt to injure an opposing player, depending on who you ask.

Still though, the Jays were on pace for a franchise record 100 wins, and held a seemingly comfortable cushion in the race for a division title.

The next day, the Jays led the Tigers 1-0 heading into the eighth inning in the final game of the series, six outs away from moving 4.5 games up on Detroit with six to play, when manager Jimy Williams made the decision to turn it over to All Star closer Tom Henke.

“The Terminator” had been nails almost all year, on his way to leading the American League in saves. And yet, he had blown four of his last eight saves, seemingly running out of gas as the season reached the finish line. Moreover, starter Jim Clancy was twirling a shutout through seven on only 79 pitches.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kirk Gibson would take Henke deep for the game tying homer, and the Jays would lose the game in extra innings.

After the game, the manager was raked over the coals by fans and media alike for his decision not to let Clancy, who already had five complete games that season, attempt to finish what he started. Yet, the criticism could only go so far, as the Jays still sat 2.5 games up on the Tigers with six to play, so there was no need to panic.

That was until Milwaukee came into Toronto and swept the Jays over three games, while Detroit split a four-game set with Baltimore, meaning that heading into the final series of the season, the Jays sat just one game ahead of the Tigers.

Even worse, in game two against the Brewers, the Jays had lost catcher Ernie Whitt, the man many considered the heart and soul of the team, to broken ribs after another slide play at second gone awry.

The only good news was that neither the Jays nor the Tigers would have to worry about the out-of-town scoreboard. The final series of the year? You guessed it – Toronto @ Detroit.

In game one, the Jays ran into Doyle Alexander, who was in the midst of a 1.53 second half ERA, and were mostly shut down in 4-3 loss. From 3.5 games up with seven remaining, they Jays were suddenly tied heading into the season’s final two games.

In the second last game of the season, the Jays got one of the best pitching performances in franchise history, as Mike Flanagan – a former Cy Young winner and World Series champion whom the Jays had added at the trade deadline – went 11 (yes eleven) innings, allowing one earned run and outdueling the great Jack Morris, who went nine innings, allowing two earned runs on 163 pitches.

The only reason the game went to extra innings in the first place was a wild throw by shortstop Manny Lee, in the game for the injured Gold Glover Fernández, which allowed the tying run to score in the fifth. Well, that and the fact that the Jays couldn’t capitalize on 13 baserunners against Morris, stranding eight between the fifth and eighth innings alone.

When Flanagan was finally pulled from the game after 11 innings and 139 pitches, Jimy Williams made the opposite decision of a few days prior, this time deciding not to give the ball to Henke, but instead, to turn it over to rookie Jeff Musselman.

Moments later, after Musselman had loaded the bases, the Tigers walked it off against Mark Eichhorn on a routine ground ball which rolled between Manny Lee’s legs.

After the game, Flanagan was furious, suggesting that the only reason he’d agreed to come out was that he believed it was Henke coming in to replace him. “There’s no one in this clubhouse that thinks it’s their fault,” Flanagan told the media, pointing the finger of blame directly at the manager.

With the season coming apart at the seams, the Jays needed to win on the final day to force a one-game playoff. Luckily for them, they had ace Jimmy Key on the mound, who was on his way to leading all of baseball in ERA and finishing second in AL Cy Young voting.

Key was brilliant, going the distance and allowing only three hits and one run on a wall scraper of a home run that George Bell could have (should have?) caught in the second inning. Unfortunately for Key and the Jays, their bats were stymied by soft-tossing veteran lefthander Frank Tanana, who threw a shutout as the Tigers won 1-0.

And with that, the Jays were unceremoniously dumped from the playoffs, completing one of the most dramatic collapses in baseball history.

Is this 1987 all over again?

Fans of the 2023 Blue Jays may start to get a sinking feeling reading the section above.

Injuries to key players at key times – including the All-Star shortstop and heart-and-soul catcher – a lockdown closer throwing games away at the most critical moments, the manager getting crushed for his questionable bullpen usage, and one of the best starting rotations in franchise history let down by the bats.

Yeah, you can pretty much cut and paste the paragraph above onto the 2023 Blue Jays.

The only question which remains is whether this year’s Jays – who were three games up in a playoff spot with six games remaining – will be able to hold on, or if they will suffer the same fate as the 1987 edition.

What do you think? Can they hold on, or will we remember this collapse 35 years from now? Let me know on the platform formerly known as Twitter – @WriteFieldDeep.