The 1988 Toronto Blue Jays continued a pattern, and one the franchise would have preferred to avoid. In 1985, the Blue Jays had a terrific season, but lost a heartbreaker in the ALCS. That was followed by a 1986 season, that while a winning year, still had a hangover feel to it. In 1987, the Blue Jays were the second-best team in baseball…but lost an epic pennant race on the final day of the season. 1988 marked another even-year hangover where Toronto won more than they lost, but never made a serious push at first place.
The Blue Jays of the 1980s were built around one of baseball’s premier outfields, but each starter suffered slippage in 1988. George Bell had a productive year—24 home runs and 97 RBI–by most measurements…but not by the standard of his MVP year in ’87. Jesse Barfield in right and Lloyd Moseby simply had mediocre years by any measurement.
Manny Lee at second base and Tony Fernandez at short were a good middle infield and each had respectable on-base percentages in the .330s, but neither were a power threat. Kelly Gruber was decent at third, with a stat line of .328 OBP/.438 slugging percentage. Rance Mulliniks, the veteran DH, had a very nice year with a stat line of .395/.475.
All of that wouldn’t have been enough to make up for the off-years by Barfield and Moseby except for one thing. Fred McGriff, age 24, broke in at first base. With a stat line of .376/.552 and 34 home runs, McGriff started what would be an excellent major league career and he helped keep the Toronto offense ranked fourth in the American League for runs scored.
The pitching staff was anchored by Dave Stieb, as had been the case throughout an era of success that went back to 1983. Stieb went 16-8 with a 3.04 ERA. Jimmy Key won 12 games with a 3.29 ERA. But Key was limited to just 21 starts and that was damaging. Mike Flanagan and Jim Clancy, a couple veteran arms that filled out the rotation, were reliable—they combined for 65 starts—but also had ERAs in the 4s.
Williams looked for answers with spot starts from 23-year-old Todd Stottlemyre and 25-year-old Jeff Musselman. The latter’s fifteen starts went pretty well, with a 3.18 ERA. Not so much for Stottleymore, who clocked in at 5.69 in a mix of starting and relief work.
The bullpen was built around closer Tom Henke, who saved 25 games with a 2.91 ERA. Duane Ward, a 24-year-old reliever with a bright future ahead of him, worked over 100 innings and finished with a 3.30 ERA. But Mark Eichorn and 25-year-old David Wells were mediocre in filling out the pen.
Toronto still finished fifth in the 14-team American League for composite ERA. But it took a lot of patchwork from Williams to get them there.
The Blue Jays split their first six games and then hosted the New York Yankees for a four-game set. The Yankees were in an era where they were perennial bridesmaids in the AL East. Suffice it to say, George Steinbrenner wanted more and expectations were high in 1988.
Toronto spotted New York three runs in the first inning of the opener, but quickly responded with six of their own. Gruber went 4-for-6 with two homers and five ribbies. Bell and Moseby had three hits apiece. A display of offensive fireworks ended with a 17-9 win.
But the “9” in that final score was troubling and pitching would be problematic the balance of the series. Clancy was rocked on Tuesday in a 12-3 loss. Stieb pitched on Wednesday and gave up five runs in the first. Even though the Yanks didn’t score again, the damage was done and the Jays lost 5-1. Key was gone by the fifth inning of Thursday afternoon’s finale, a 7-3 loss.
Another team with high expectations was the Oakland A’s, managed by Tony LaRussa and with young stars named Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire. The A’s came to Toronto for a three-game set at the end of April.
Toronto was consistently outplayed throughout the series. They mustered only five singles in a 6-1 loss on Tuesday. A 5-3 loss followed on Wednesday. Stottlemyre was hit hard in the finale while the bats went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position. A 6-2 loss completed the sweep.
By Memorial Day, the Blue Jays were reeling. The record was 21-28 and they were twelve games back of the Yankees in the AL East.
This would be disturbing in today’s landscape. Under the playoff format of the era, it was cause for a full-scale alarm. Each league had just two divisions, an East and a West. Only the first-place finisher could go to the postseason. With no Central Division and no Division Series, Toronto was in very deep trouble.
The early summer months saw the Blue Jays show some signs of life. They won four straight from the Red Sox in Fenway, then took two of three when Boston made the return trip to Canada. Toronto went 4-3 against Detroit. The Tigers were not only in the AL East—along with the Indians, Brewers (an American League team prior to 1998) and the division’s current teams sans the Rays, but Detroit was the team who had outlasted Toronto in that epic ’87 pennant race.
Toronto pushed their way back to .500 on a two different occasions, but Oakland, on their way to the World Series this season, again got in the way and administered an early July sweep. The Blue Jay record at the All-Star break was 42-46. They were in sixth place. They were 11 ½ games back in a division where the Tigers now held the lead.
The late summer would be marked by an AL East contender, after playing mediocre baseball for the first half, getting hot and moving to first place. But it would be Boston, rather than Toronto. The Blue Jays did play some better baseball, but not enough to really get in the race.
What they did get was some payback against New York, who was starting to struggle. Toronto paid a visit to the Bronx in the first part of August for a three-game set.
Fernandez sparked the lineup in Tuesday night’s opener with three hits. Flanagan pitched five manageable innings, and then Ward was brilliant in getting the final twelve outs of a 6-3 win. Key delivered a shutout, a 5-0 win on Wednesday.
On Thursday night, veteran catcher Ernie Whitt homered twice and the Jays led 5-3 in the ninth. Even though Henke coughed up a game-tying home run to Don Mattingly and the game went extras, Toronto still found a way to complete the sweep. In the top of the eleventh, Barfield singled, stole second and then came all the way around on a throwing error.
By Labor Day, the Blue Jays were finally on the right side of .500 with a 69-68 record. They were within 6 ½ games, but in fifth place. There were a lot of teams to leapfrog and not much time to do it in.
To the great credit of Toronto, they didn’t mail it in. The Jays won 22 of their final 29 games. That included series wins over Detroit and Boston, were jousting for first. The Red Sox eventually won the race, but the Blue Jays made them wait. In the final week, when Boston needed one win to clinch. Toronto swept three games in Fenway and scored 27 runs in the process.
The final record was 87-75 and the late surge meant the Blue Jays finished just two games out of first place. They were tied for third in the AL East, tied for fifth in the American League overall and tied for seventh in all of baseball. It was a playoff season by the standards of today.
But the final record doesn’t convey that Toronto was never a real contender to win the AL East. This franchise was now at a point where that was the measuring stick. The good news for Blue Jay fans? They would indeed win this division four times over the next five years, and in 1992 and 1993, they would win it all.