From 1985-92, the Toronto Blue Jays were defined by close-but-no-cigar and questions about whether they could take the final step and win a championship. There was a crushing ALCS loss in 1985 and subsequent playoff losses in 1989 and 1991. The 1987 Toronto Blue Jays fit squarely in that tradition, as one of the best teams in baseball, but losing a crushing AL East race in the end.
It started with pitching for the ‘87 Blue Jays and the rotation was built around three workhorse starters. Jimmy Key, a 26-year-old lefty with pinpoint control, made 36 starts and delivered a 17-8 record with a 2.76 ERA. Veteran Jim Clancy went to the mound 37 times, finishing 15-11 with a 3.54 ERA. Dave Stieb, the usual ace of the staff, had a down year, but still went 13-9 with a 4.09 ERA I his 31 starts.
Manager Jimy Williams had to piece together the rest of the rotation, but had a solid bullpen to fall back on. Closer Tom Henke nailed down 34 saves—very good in a period where there were still a lot of complete games by starters—and did it with a 2.49 ERA. Mark Eichorn worked 127 innings and put up a 3.17 ERA.
It all added up to the best staff ERA in the American League and the offense wasn’t far behind, ranking third in the AL in runs scored. The attack was led by left fielder George Bell, who hit 47 home runs, drove in 134 runs, had a stat line of .352 on-base percentage/.605 slugging percentage and was voted the American League MVP.
Bell was part of a young and talented outfield. Centerfielder Lloyd Moseby’s stat line was .358/.473, he drove in 96 runs and scored 106 more. Rightfielder Jesse Barfield had one of the best arms in the game and also hit 28 home runs. All three outfielders were 27-years-old.
Veteran catcher Ernie Whitt had a good year at age 35, slugging .455 and a young hitter in Fred McGriff came up and hit 20 home runs with a .376 OBP. Tony Fernandez, the talented 25-year-old shortstop posted a .379 OBP.
There were weak spots in the lineup to be sure—Willie Upshaw and Garth Iorg on the right side of the infield didn’t hit well, and third baseman Kelly Gruber was going through growing pains in his second year. But Williams got valuable contributions off the bench.
Utility man Rance Mulliniks had a stat line of .371/.500 in nearly 400 plate appearances. The Jays gave almost 200 at-bats to a young power hitter named Cecil Fielder and he popped 14 home runs. Rick Leach, a former college quarterback at Michigan, gave the Jays a .371 OBP in 224 plate appearances.
Toronto started the season off steady and on Memorial Day they were 24-17, three games back of the New York Yankees. From May 29 to June 14 they got hot, going 14-2 and sweeping the Yankees three straight in the Bronx, outscoring them 22-3. But the Jays turned around and lost home series to Milwaukee (then an American League team) and Detroit and got a return sweep handed to them by the Yanks. Toronto was back to three games out at the All-Star break.
The late summer period was one of great consistency. Over a stretch of 15 series, Toronto won nine, split four and only lost two. They never won more than four in a row, but by Labor Day they were sitting on an 82-54 record. New York was fading and five games back. Detroit emerged as the rival in this division race, just a half-game out.
The Blue Jays made a key acquisition for the pitching staff on August 31. Mike Flanagan had a Cy Young Award on his resume and plenty of big-game experience with Baltimore in the years from 1979-83 when the Orioles won two pennants, a World Series title and were regularly in the division race. Flanagan made seven starts for Toronto and gave them a 2.37 ERA.
The Blue Jays and Tigers would end the season with the two best records in all of baseball and they waged a great September battle. Toronto was still a half-game up on September 27 when the second-to-last weekend of the season arrived. Detroit was in town for a four-game set and on the final weekend the Blue Jays were making a return trip to Tiger Stadium. The AL East would be settled head-to-head.
Toronto jumped Detroit workhorse Jack Morris for a four runs in the third inning of the opener, the key hit being a two-run single from Ernie Whitt. Those runs stood up for a 4-3 win, but they came at a cost—Fernandez was injured and lost for the rest of the season.
The Jays trailed Friday’s game 2-0 in the ninth inning, but Manny Lee’s two-run triple tied it and he scored the winning run on an error. On Saturday, the Blue Jays rallied three different times, from deficits of 3-0, 7-3 and 9-7, ultimately winning the game on a bases-loaded walk.
Toronto was 3 ½ games up and even playing mediocre baseball for the last eight days would be enough. What followed was a combination of three factors—a difficult schedule, the loss of key players—Fernandez already out and Whitt would go down by Tuesday of the final week—and a plain-old collapse.
It didn’t look that way in the Sunday finale against Detroit. Bell’s RBI single in the first inning gave the Jays a quick 1-0 lead and Clancy made it stand up until the ninth inning. The Tigers, fighting for their lives, scored a run to tie it and took the lead on a home run in the 11th inning. Barfield answered with a two-out RBI that further extended the game, but Toronto ultimately lost 3-2 in 13 innings.
They had still done everything that could be reasonably expected, taking three of four on their homefield and holding a 2 ½ game lead with a week to go. The Brewers came to town next and though they weren’t in contention, this was a hot baseball team. Milwaukee ended up with the best record in the majors after the All-Star break and their ultimate 91-71 record would be fourth-best in the game. Paul Molitor’s 39-game hitting streak had captured everyone’s attention during the summer and they got everyone’s attention again by sweeping the Blue Jays.
Detroit didn’t distinguish themselves, splitting four at home with Baltimore. But it was enough to reduce Toronto’s lead to a single game as they arrived in Tiger Stadium on Friday night.
Lee got the Jays off to a good start, with a three-run blast in the second inning of the opener. But they didn’t score again, the game was tied after three and Toronto lost 4-3.
Flanagan was everything Toronto would have asked him to be on Saturday afternoon. He went toe-to-toe with Jack Morris and in a 2-2 game, Flanagan went eleven innings. As soon as he came out, Toronto coughed up a run and lost 3-2.
Unbelievably, the team who a week earlier had been three outs from going up 4 ½ games, now needed to win the finale on the road just to force a one-game playoff. Key took the mound and was brilliant, going the distance and allowing only a solo home run. It wasn’t enough. The Blue Jays wasted three good scoring opportunities in the first four innings, then went silent for the rest of the game in a 1-0 loss. It was over.
Coming just two years after blowing a 3-1 series lead in the ALCS, this collapse tagged Toronto with the “can’t-win-the-big-one” label. Decisive playoff losses to Oakland in 1989 and Minnesota in 1991 didn’t help that. But this franchise would eventually get over the top, with back-to-back World Series titles in both 1992 and 1993.