The AL East didn’t produce a World Series winner in the 1987 baseball season, but the division produced one of the best playoff races of the decade, as the Detroit Tigers went toe-to-toe with the Toronto Blue Jays and the Milwaukee Brewers played a key complementary role as the third team.
Milwaukee came storming out of the gate, starting the season with 13 straight wins and getting a no-hitter by starting pitcher Juan Nieves. The Brewers were nothing if not streaky, and in May, they lost twelve games in a row. Eventually, Milwaukee settled down, won 93 games and saw a 39-game hitting streak from Paul Molitor in the late summer.
Detroit and Toronto weren’t as entertaining, but the two teams won more games than any other team in baseball. The Tigers swung a key trade deadline deal for veteran pitcher Doyle Alexander, and he went 9-0 down the stretch. The cost was a prospect by the name of John Smoltz, and he was highly regarded at the time, but no one in Motown was complaining.
Toronto, led by MVP left fielder George Bell, was still ahead by 2 ½ games entering the final week, but they opened by losing three consecutive games to Milwaukee. Detroit had the lead down to a single game as they and the Jays met for one last series in old Tiger Stadium.
Alexander got the ball for Friday night’s opener, and gave up an early three-run homer to ninth-place hitter Manuel Lee. But Alexander settled back down and Toronto would not score again. The Tigers got their own home run from an unlikely hero, Scott Lusader and had a 4-3 lead by the time the third inning was out, and that score held up.
Both teams were now 96-64, and it set up a de facto two-of-three playoff series, including the provision for a Monday afternoon playoff if necessary. Each of the Saturday and Sunday games were set for national television and both were worthy of the stakes.
Saturday’s game was a pitcher’s duel between warriors. Toronto sent out lefty Mike Flanagan, a key part of the Baltimore Orioles’ 1983 World Series winner, while Detroit turned to Jack Morris, one of the great clutch pitchers of his era. Each was up to the job, and a 2-2 game went into extra innings. In the 12th, Detroit loaded the bases with one out and then got a single to left from shortstop Alan Trammel to win it.
Sunday’s finale was a tense pitchers’ duel, but veteran Detroit lefty Frank Tanana threw a complete game six-hitter and outdueled Jimmy Key 1-0. The Tiger comeback and the Blue Jays’ last-week collapse were complete. Detroit would lose the American League Championship Series to the Minnesota Twins, perhaps spent by all it took just to get there.
But the AL East race, from Milwaukee’s streaks, both team and individual, to the great battle waged by Detroit and Toronto, was one of the great highlights of the 1987 baseball season.