The 1990 Toronto Blue Jays were cut in the mold of the team’s eight-year run from 1984-91, where they were consistently good, but not quite good enough to win it all. The 1990 edition of the Blue Jays competed right to the very end of the regular season before losing a tough AL East race.
Toronto’s lineup was anchored by production from the corner infield spots. Third baseman, Kelly Gruber, hit 31 home runs, drove in 118 runs and finished fourth in the MVP voting. Fred McGriff at first base was 10th in the MVP vote, although he was the more complete offensive player. McGriff finished with an on-base percentage of .400, slugged .530, hit 35 home runs, drove in 88 runs and scored 91 more.
Gruber and McGriff got help from John Olerud, the 21-year-old designated hitter who finished with a .364 OBP/.430 slugging. Tony Fernandez at short had a .352 OBP. But the Blue Jay lineup had more holes than was customary during this era. George Bell, a one-time MVP in left field had a bad year. Mookie Wilson was aging, now 34-years-old in center and rightfielder Junior Felix was still a little too green at age 22.
Dave Stieb, a franchise icon, was the mainstay of the rotation and he won 18 games with a 2.93 ERA. Tom Henke anchored the bullpen, saving 32 games with a 2.17 ERA. But the depth was a problem. Todd Stottlemyre was the only pitcher besides Stieb to make 30-plus starts and his ERA was 4.34. Jimmy Key had a down year, a 4.25 ERA in 27 starts. David Wells was effective, going 11-6 with a 3.14 ERA, but only went to the post 25 times.
Toronto won 11 of their first 17 games and took the lead in an AL East that had no clear dominant team. A trip to Chicago at the end of April brought them down to earth. They lost three straight to the White Sox, who would end up as the second-best team in the American League behind the Oakland A’s. The lowlight of the weekend series came on Sunday when Key was knocked out after three innings in a 10-3 loss.
When Memorial Day arrived, the Jays were only 24-22, but this year in the AL East they was good enough for second place and just a ½ game behind a Milwaukee Brewers team that no one took seriously (the Brewers went to the National League in 1998 and no Central Division existed until 1994).
Milwaukee indeed fell by the wayside in the early summer, while Toronto and the Boston Red Sox picked up the slack and separated themselves from the rest of the division. The Blue Jays ripped off an 11-2 streak in early June and led the Red Sox by a half-game, with two series against their rivals looming.
The Jays and Red Sox split two in the SkyDome. After losing the opener, Toronto rebounded with an 11-0 rout behind Stieb. It was a four-game set in Fenway a week later that was the problem. Stieb and Key each struggled and lost their starts. Toronto understandably lost to Roger Clemens and less understandably was shut down by Wes Gardner. They lost all four games, although they were able to rebound and close the margin back to within a half-game by the All-Star break.
But the head-to-head problems against Boston weren’t going away. In late August, the Red Sox came north of the border and took three out of four—all three Blue Jay losses were shutouts and all were close, as Toronto only gave up four runs combined in the three games. It was the low point of a sub-.500 August, and when the Jays were 6 ½ off the pace on Labor Day, their prospects looked bleak.
In early September, Toronto started to gather themselves. They swept Chicago, while Boston was getting swept by Oakland, and the lead was cut to 4 ½ games. Toronto then took advantage of a softer schedule and took five of seven from the Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles. The Red Sox, meanwhile, were beaten up by the White Sox and by September 16 the margin in the AL East was down to a single game.
Toronto kept surging and swept a bad New York Yankees team in Skydome, while Boston was losing a series in Baltimore. The Blue Jays moved into first place by a game and the race was still tied with six games to go. The Jays and Red Sox met for a three-game weekend set in Fenway.
Stieb got the ball in the Friday opener and immediately fell behind 4-0. Toronto tied the game, but two errors by Gruber put Boston back ahead. When Junior Felix hit a two-run shot to give the Jays a 6-5 lead and Henke on the way in, Toronto was looking good. But the closer coughed up the lead and they lost 7-6.
Stottlemyre was rocked on Saturday, falling behind Clemens 7-zip. The Jays got five runs in the ninth, but the 7-5 loss wasn’t as close as it appeared. The bats salvaged Sunday’s finale. Felix singled and stole second to jumpstart a three-run rally in the second. Felix later homered and Toronto won 10-5. But they needed help in the final three games of the year.
The Blue Jays were in Baltimore, while the Red Sox hosted Chicago, so help was possible. But Wells couldn’t hold a 3-1 lead on Monday and Toronto lost another game in the standings. They survived on Tuesday behind a brilliant outing from lefty Bud Black, the current Colorado Rockies manager. McGriff hit a two-run homer to break up a 1-1 tie in the ninth, while Boston was losing. On the final day of the regular season, the Blue Jays were breathing.
But the pennant drive fell short. Toronto was tied 1-1 when word came that Boston had clinched the AL East with a thrilling win over Chicago. The Blue Jays lost their finale seven minutes later and the season was over.
It wasn’t a year that met expectations at a time when Toronto was chasing their first World Series title and expected nothing less than to at least win the AL East. But they got back on top of the division in 1991. And the best was just over horizon—the franchise finally won back-to-back championships in 1992 and 1993.