After their first winning season in franchise history in 1983, the 1984 Toronto Blue Jays solidified the progress. They posted another solid campaign and established the breakthrough of ’83 was no fluke. Only playing in a division with one of the best teams of the 1980s kept them from the postseason.
A talented outfield that would become one of the most heralded in baseball played their first season together in 1984. George Bell stepped into the left field job and hit 26 home runs. Bell joined an outfield that already had Lloyd Moseby in center and Jesse Barfield in right. Moseby finished with a stat line of .368 on-base percentage/.470 slugging percentage in 1984. Barfield, in addition to being a terrific defensive rightfielder with a rifle for an arm, posted a stat line of .357/.466.
The corner spots of the infield were in productive hands. Willie Upshaw played first and slugged .464. Rance Mulliniks was at third and his OBP was .383. Cliff Johnson, the veteran DH, provided more muscle with a .507 slugging percentage and his OBP was a sparkling .390.
Toronto’s well-balanced offense also had table-setters. Damaso Garcia was a good contact hitter at second base. Dave Collins, the veteran fourth outfielder, got playing time and stole 60 bases. The shortstop’s job was mostly in the hands of Alfredo Griffin, known more his glove than his bat. But a transition was beginning to 22-year-old Tony Fernandez who would become known for both.
All told, the Blue Jay offense ranked fifth in the American League in runs scored.
The pitching staff was anchored by four reliable veterans who combined to make 142 starts. Dave Stieb was the rotation ace and he won 16 games with a 2.83 ERA. Doyle Alexander racked up 17 wins and his ERA was 3.13. Luis Leal’s 13 wins came with a 3.89 ERA.
Where Toronto staff started to have problems was an off-year from Jim Clancy, whose ERA was up at 5.12. The bullpen lacked a reliable stopper and no one who put in any consistent time in relief had an ERA lower than 3.65. The quality of the top three still kept the Blue Jay staff ranked fifth in the AL for composite ERA, but the lack of depth would hold Toronto back.
The Blue Jays came out of the gates firing on all cylinders. In mid-April they hosted the defending World Series champion Baltimore Orioles. Alexander locked up with Baltimore’s Mike Boddicker, an October hero in 1983 in the series opener and a 2-2 game went to the eighth inning. Upshaw doubled, Bell drove him in and the Jays took a 3-2 win.
On Wednesday it was Collins who knocked out three hits, drove in three runs and keyed an easy 7-1 win behind Stieb. The Thursday afternoon getaway finale saw Clancy battle Oriole lefty Scott McGregor. A 1-1 tie went to the ninth. Upshaw again got something started with a base hit. Backup infielder Garth Iorg tripled in the run. The Blue Jays completed the sweep.
Toronto went on to win all six games they played against eventual AL West champ Kansas City. The Blue Jays swept a three-game set over the Chicago White Sox, who had won the West the year before. And Toronto delivered another three-game sweep over Minnesota, who contended to the final week of the season.
By Memorial Day, the Blue Jays were 31-14, riding high with the second-best record in baseball. There was only one problem. The Detroit Tigers were even hotter.
Here is a good place to step back and remind younger readers about the alignment and playoff format used by MLB from 1969-93. Each league was split into just an East and a West and only the first-place finisher could go to the postseason. That meant the AL East not only included current members in the Blue Jays, Yankees, Orioles and Red Sox, but centrally located teams in the Tigers, Indians and Brewers (an American League team prior to 1998).
So even though Toronto was red-hot, they were five games out of first place heading into the summer. By an early June series in Detroit, the first head-to-head shot at the Tigers, the deficit was still 4 ½ games. This was Toronto’s chance to dent that lead.
Stieb pitched Monday night’s opener and the ace was staked to a 3-0 lead that he carried into the seventh inning. But the Tigers rallied to tie the game. Jimmy Key came on in relief. The young lefty would become a reliable starter by next season. Right now he was still an untested part of a spotty bullpen and he gave up a three-run homer in the 10th.
It was a tough loss, but the Blue Jays bounced right back. They won Tuesday’s game 8-4, thanks to a six-run fourth inning where catcher Ernie Whitt hit a three-run blast. Upshaw hit an early two-run homer on Wednesday and Leal won 6-3.
Even though Clancy lost the Thursday afternoon finale to Detroit ace Jack Morris, the Blue Jays had managed to split on the road. When Detroit made the return trip across the border a week later, the Toronto bats unloaded for 23 runs in three games and won twice.
The head-to-head with Detroit wasn’t the problem. The problem was what happened in between the series at Tiger Stadium and the follow-up at old Exhibition Stadium. It was a weekend in New York against the Yankees. Toronto lost the opener 4-3 in eleven innings. Stieb lost a heartbreaking 2-1 duel to New York ace Ron Guidry. A 5-3 loss on Sunday swept the Blue Jays out of the Big Apple.
Thus, by the time this entire schedule stretch was completed, the Blue Jays had not cut into the Tigers’ divisional lead. By the All-Star break, Toronto was still 50-34, still the second-best team in baseball…and seven games out of first.
The Blue Jays continued to play well in the late summer. They won five of seven from the Orioles and six of seven from the Twins. But losing four straight to the Royals held Toronto back in the divisional race that had no room for error. On Labor Day, Toronto’s record was 79-57 and they were 8 ½ games behind Detroit.
Making a pennant run was a longshot against this good of a frontrunner and Toronto did not play well in September in either case. They dropped another series in New York. And when Detroit came to town and delivered a three-game sweep, it was all but over. The Tigers ended the season with a dazzling 104 wins and cruised through the postseason.
Toronto finished the season at 89-73. It was the same record as 1983. But even so, this felt like progress. The Blue Jays still ended up with the fourth-best record in baseball. They would have won the much weaker AL West with room to spare. They were clearly a playoff team by the standards of today. And by 1985, they would be a playoff team by the standards of their own, more demanding era.