The 1986 Toronto Blue Jays were facing an unexpected transition. They had won the AL East in 1985 for the first playoff appearance in franchise history. But a heartbreaking ALCS loss was followed by an offseason of change. Bobby Cox, the manager who led them into prominence, departed to become the general manager at Atlanta. Toronto turned to Jimy Williams. While the Blue Jays were still a good team in ’86, it ended up being a season that had all the hallmarks of a hangover year.
The outfield was widely regarded as the best in baseball. Even allowing for an off-year from Lloyd Moseby in center, the stars at the corner spots still had huge years. George Bell hit 31 homers and drove in 108 runs. Jesse Barfield bashed 40 home runs and drove in 108 runs of his own. Bell and Barfield finished 4-5 in the final MVP voting.
Bell and Barfield carried an offense that saw a number of players having years that, while respectable, showed signs of slippage. First baseman Willie Upshaw had a .341 OBP and stole 23 bases, but saw his power disappear. Damaso Garcia at second had long been a good hitter for average, but his lack of patience at the plate become more apparent when the hits stopped coming.
Rance Mulliniks played third. Like Upshaw, his .340 OBP was good enough, but slugging percentage fell off dramatically. The same went for 38-year-old DH Cliff Johnson, whose .355 OBP couldn’t mask lower power numbers. Tony Fernandez stole 25 bases, but the shortstop didn’t have a great year with the bat.
Ernie Whitt, the veteran catcher who had been with this franchise through their building years, delivered some power to the alleys with a .448 slugging percentage. But all told, more players underperformed than not.
All of which makes it an even bigger tribute to Bell and Barfield that the Blue Jays still finished second in the American League in runs scored.
But the pitching staff suffered from a similar problems—individual seasons that weren’t bad, but not quite good enough—without having a similar solution. Jimmy Key and Jim Clancy each won 14 games with ERAs in the high 3s. Tom Henke saved 25 games in the bullpen, but the 3.35 ERA was a little high.
Doyle Alexander and Joe Johnson did part-time duty in the rotation, and ended with ERAs of 4.46 and 3.89 respectively. John Cerutti clocked in at 4.15 in a mix of starting and relief work.
The man who would normally have taken this staff and lifted it to a higher level was having a bad year. Dave Stieb was usually the staff ace. Not in 1986, when his ERA jumped to 4.74 and he finished 7-12.
Jim Acker was the only pitcher who had a big year for the ’86 Jays. The middle reliever worked 157 innings and posted a 1.72 ERA. He appeared on a couple of Cy Young ballots. A great season to be sure, but had anyone told Jimy Williams that Acker would be his best pitcher, the rookie skipper would have known that some rocky sledding was ahead. Toronto ended up seventh in the 14-team American League for staff ERA.
The Blue Jays played poorly in the season’s first two months. An ALCS rematch with the Kansas City Royals ended up with four losses in six games. Five games with the eventual AL West champ California Angels ended with three more defeats. The results against weaker fare were no better. By Memorial Day, Toronto was 20-24, in last place and staring at a nine-game deficit in the AL East.
That situation was even more precarious in 1986 than it would be today. The format of the time had each league split into just two divisions, an East and a West. And there were no wild-cards—you either won your division or you went home. Thus, the Blue Jays were in a seven-team division, as the Indians, Tigers and Brewers (an AL team prior to 1998) were stacked in with the Red Sox, Yankees, Orioles and Jays.
Boston was out in front of the pack. After Toronto took an early June series from Detroit to get back on their feet, the Jays hosted the Red Sox for a three-game series. This was the chance to start making a move.
Stieb delivered a vintage performance on Monday night, winning 5-1 behind three hits from Fernandez. Toronto then came out on Tuesday and jumped ahead 3-0.
But the Jays missed repeated opportunities and went just 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position (RISP). The Red Sox eventually tied it up and finally beat Toronto 4-3 in ten innings. A similar lack of opportunistic hitting plagued the Jays in the Wednesday night finale, although admittedly facing Roger Clemens was the bigger problem. Toronto went 1-for-9 with RISP, wasting a good outing from Alexander in a 2-1 loss.
The Blue Jays got back on their feet though. Over the next 17 games, all against AL East opponents, Toronto went 12-5. They moved up to fourth place. Even though the deficit was still 9 ½ games, another series with Boston was at hand.
A four-game set in Fenway Park opened up on the final day of June. Behind another three-hit game from Fernandez, the Blue Jays had leads of 6-3 in the fifth and 9-5 in the sixth. But as those scores indicate, Clancy was far from comfortable on the mound. Dennis Lamp eventually came on in relief, but couldn’t hold the lead. The Red Sox pulled even and eventually won 10-9 in extra innings.
Alexander pitched on Tuesday night and this time Boston was all over him. The Jays were staring at a 7-1 hole by the third inning. Behind another big night from Fernandez, three more hits, they made it respectable. But the final still ended up with a 9-7 loss.
This series was already a disappointment and was shaping up to be a complete disaster as Clemens took the mound on Wednesday night. Clemens, in his first breakout year in the major leagues, had a 14-0 record coming in and was the talk of baseball. Toronto trailed 2-1 in the eighth.
Finally, someone got to The Rocket. Mulliniks doubled and Bell tied up the game with a single. He eventually came around on a sac fly. The Blue Jays handed the eventual Cy Young and MVP winner his first loss of the season and had survived. They won the finale 8-5 with Mulliniks and Barfield each homering twice.
But losing four of the seven June games with the Red Sox was a missed chance. The Blue Jay record was up to 47-43 by the All-Star break, but they were still 10 ½ games off the pace.
Toronto took three out of four in California out of the break and that triggered a strong late summer. Playing a schedule heavy on the AL West, the Blue Jays went 26-15. By Labor Day, they were up to second place and had closed to within 3 ½ games of the Red Sox. The Boston fan base, not known for being cool under pressure prior to 2004, was in a panic. And Toronto would get six games against the division leader down the stretch.
It all added up to drama. But that’s not what happened. Toronto split six games with weak teams in the White Sox and Indians. The Jays hosted a competitive Yankee team and lost three straight. Meanwhile, the Red Sox got hot again. By the time the head-to-head games began, the Blue Jays were ten games back and all but finished.
The final record ended up 86-76. Toronto finished fourth in the AL East and sixth overall in the American League. Was it a playoff season by the more lenient standards of today? Not by those rankings, although you could look at the Jays’ record being tied for ninth overall and say they were at least playoff-caliber.
That’s an interesting discussion for history. In the moment, Toronto had taken a decided step back. But by 1987, they would be in one of baseball’s great pennant races. Even though that ended in heartbreak, the Blue Jays still won four AL East titles over the next seven years. And in 1992 and 1993, they broke through and won it all. The hangover of ’86 was only temporary.