October Surprise Part 9: Comeback Complete

This is the final installment in our series that looked back on the Tigers’ and Blue Jays’ epic fight for the 1987 American League East title.

American League East Standings: October 4, 1987

Team Record Pct. GB
Detroit 97-64 .619 –
Toronto 96-65 .596 1

BallBatGrass.jpgIn the first six games one thing was constant: the team that scored first would go on to lose. The Blue Jays, with the season in the balance, would take their chances and welcome an early lead off Tigers starter Frank Tanana.

Instead, the Tigers struck first. Larry Herndon led off the Detroit third inning with a home run off Blue Jays starter Jimmy Key. A strong wind gust nudged the ball over Bell’s outstretched glove and into the lower deck in left. The Tigers led 1-0 on Herndon’s first homer since Aug. 18.

“Luckily, I just got enough,” Herndon said to Tommy George of the Free Press. “I saw Bell go back and it looked like he had a chance to catch it. I looked at Bell all the way. And then when I heard and saw the crowd reaction behind the fence, I knew it was out.”

Key gave his team every opportunity to get back into the game. He blanked Detroit – allowing only a single by Lou Whitaker and three walks – over the next five innings. As the shadows crept across the Tiger Stadium infield, Tanana faced – and escaped – a number of threats. In the eighth, the Blue Jays placed a runner at third with only one out and the heart of the order coming to bat. Tanana got Juan Beniquez to line to right and then Jesse Barfield grounded out to end the inning.

In the bottom of the eighth, Key struck out the side and finished the game giving up only three hits. He could now only watch as his teammates worked to muster some offense against Tanana.

Cecil Fielder, who three years later would become a star with Detroit, led off the ninth inning with a strike out. The next hitter, Manny Lee, who was superb in replacing Tony Fernandez during the season’s final 10 days, battled with Tanana and fouled off five, full-count pitches. With the sixth, Lee grounded sharply to third for out number two.

The Blue Jays’ final hope rested on the bat of third baseman Garth Iorg, hitless in his previous three at bats. Iorg swung at the first pitch, a tantalizing curveball, and hit a slow roller between pitcher’s mound and first. Tanana scooped the ball, turned and softly underhanded it to first baseman Darrell Evans for the final out – clinching the Tigers second division championship in four years.

The Blue Jays could only watch as the Tigers celebrated a championship that, just a week earlier, appeared to be theirs.

“To lose that many one-run games, one play, one pitch, one hit turns ‘em all around,” Toronto manager Jimy Williams told the News’s Lynn Henning in a somber clubhouse afterward. “Especially one hit. We lost the first two and then, when you put nine eggs on the board, it’s tough to win.”

As the Blue Jays gathered their belongings and prepared for a long winter of questions and soul searching, the Tigers had more work ahead of them: the American League Championship Series against the Minnesota Twins.

Seven months earlier at their spring training home in Lakeland, Fla., the Tigers didn’t appear to have the ingredients required for a memorable season. At the time, Jack Morris said that the Tigers could win…but they’d have to do it with what they had. Hardly a stirring battle cry.

But when the final 10 days of the 1987 season arrived, the Tigers proved they had enough – plenty, in fact – to win the American League East title.

Final 1987 American League East Standings

Team Record Pct. GB
Detroit 98-64 .605 –
Toronto 96-66 .593 2

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