Final weeks of ’87 season saw Tigers and Blue Jays battle to exciting finish

Toronto's George Bell fails to reach a fly ball hit by Larry Herndon that clears the fence for a home run in Game #162 in 1987.

Toronto’s George Bell fails to reach a fly ball hit by Larry Herndon that clears the fence for a home run in Game #162 in 1987.

Detroit Tiger fans have great memories of 1984, and rightfully so. There is simply nothing to compare to a World Series victory. But after their historic 35-5 start, the Tigers went into cruise control the rest of the season, playing at a solid, though unspectacular, 69-53 clip. Having left their competition in the dust early on, there was really no race in the American League East that summer, as the Tigers finished a whopping 15 games in front.

The 1987 Tigers, however, were different. Initially, they stunk; on May 11, they were 11-19, in sixth place (out of seven), 9 1/2 games off the pace. From that date, however, they went 87-45, a .659 clip, by far the best in baseball. They had a budding rivalry with their neighbors to the north, the Toronto Blue Jays. The season entered its final month with the two clubs in a fierce fight for the division.

Tiger manager Sparky Anderson reminded people that “We’re a lot better than we were when we won it all in ’84. For one thing, we have better starting pitchers. In 1984, my #3 guy was Milt Wilcox, and he didn’t have a single complete game all year.” This was an era before the complete game went the way of the fax machine. “My #4 guy in 1984? I have a hard time remembering him.” It was actually the very forgettable Juan Berenguer. The 1987 Tiger rotation featured Jack Morris, Walt Terrell, and Frank Tanana, who combined for 50 wins that year. A very good starting staff was made great by the August 12 acquisition of Doyle Alexander, who went 9-0 for the Tigers in ’87. (Detroit gave up minor-league pitching prospect John Smoltz in the deal with the Atlanta Braves.)

On Thursday, September 24, Detroit headed to Toronto for a four-game set. The Bengals trailed Toronto by a half-game, following a two-hitter by Alexander in Boston on the 23rd. Detroit’s record stood at 92-59; the Jays’ at 93-59. “Hey, I’m sure this will be a pretty good series,” Sparky predicted.

In the opener, before a raucous Exhibition Stadium crowd of 42,436, the Tigers got off to a quick 2-0 lead in the third. The runs were set up by Bill Madlock’s vigorous roll-block of Jays’ shortstop Tony Fernandez, breaking up a possible double-play. Fernandez was forced to leave the game, holding his elbow in pain, cursing Madlock in English and Spanish.

But the lead was short-lived, as Toronto roughed up Jack Morris. Bidding for his 19th victory, he surrendered four runs in the fourth, and Toronto held on for a 4-3 win. Tom Henke struck out Kirk Gibson for the final out for his 34th save. The Tigers were now a game and a half back. Upon news that Fernandez would miss the remainder of the season with a fractured elbow, a major post-game altercation broke out in the stands between Tiger and Blue Jay fans, lasting nearly 15 minutes.

Said Madlock to a reporter in the locker room afterward: “Sure, I tried to take (Fernandez) out, and sure, I’m sorry he got hurt, but that’s baseball. Why should I give him a call in the hospital? I’m not the Welcome Wagon. What’s your next question? Am I gonna send him a candy bar?”

Sparky was at no loss for words when told that the Jays had accused Madlock of dirty play. “I’m damned mad that they think that. Maybe we should go out on the field and give them a great big kiss. If Pete Rose ever played against the Blue Jays, considering the way that he used to knock people down, there’d be total hysteria in Toronto.”

The series obviously had everyone on edge. It was noted that Morris, usually a fastball/forkball pitcher, hadn’t challenged the Jays enough with the hard stuff. Said a teammate, “There was absolutely no reason for him to throw the kind of off-speed crap he did tonight. But every once in a while, too many wheels start turning in his head and he gets some crazy ideas.”

What a way to start a series.

The second game featured Tanana, sporting a 9.33 ERA since August 11. He had the Jays flailing at off-speed pitches all evening long, shutting them out in his seven innings of work. The Tigers headed into the ninth holding on to a slim two-run lead. But three relievers, Dickie Noles, Willie Hernandez, and Mike Henneman could not get the job done. Toronto tied the game, and eventually won it on a one-out, bases-loaded ground ball to second baseman Lou Whitaker, who made a wild throw to catcher Mike Heath, allowing the deciding run to score. 46,233 Jays fans headed home happy, as their heroes now held a two-and-a-half game lead over Detroit.

“How can we win 92 games this year without a legitimate guy in the bullpen,” asked Anderson post-game, pipe clenched between teeth. “That’s a legitimate question.” But, “we’ll win the last two games of the series. You wait and see.”

If the folks back home in Detroit thought that game was bad, the third game of the series, on Saturday, would prove to be even more demoralizing. The Tigers quickly silenced the 46,000-plus crowd, bolting out to a three-run lead in the first off Dave Stieb. Terrell wasn’t sharp, however, and gave the Jays three of their own in the bottom of the frame. But the Tigers scored four in the third, two in the fifth, and entered the bottom of the ninth with a 9-7 lead. Henneman, who had come on in the bottom of the sixth and held the Jays to only one run, was sent back out to finish the game. He faced four batters, giving up a double, a single, a hit-by-pitch, and a bases-clearing triple to pinch-hitter Juan Beniquez. Just like that, the game was over. Final score: Toronto 10, Tigers 9.

Detroit had just taken a major blow to the gut, and now trailed the Blue Jays by 3½ games. Toronto went into the final game of the series thinking sweep.

Kirk Gibson, playing prognosticator, pointed out, “The Jays better enjoy the situation while they can because maybe there is a ‘next weekend’ for us. Maybe we’re setting the biggest bear trap of all time.”

This final game of the series would prove to be one for the ages.

Another crowd of over 46,000 saw a wonderful pitching duel between Alexander and Jim Clancy. Toronto scored a run in the first on an RBI single by MVP candidate George Bell, and that was it until the top of the ninth. Down 1-0, the Tigers were in danger of losing all four games, and slipping 4 ½ games behind the Jays with only seven left to play.

Gibson stepped in to face relief ace Tom Henke. The 1984 World Series star sent a towering home run far beyond the right-field wall, tying the game and suddenly giving the Tigers new life. Henke got the next three to send the game into extras. Alexander was still in the game for the Tigers, and quickly put the Jays down in order in the bottom of the ninth.

Detroit did not score in the tenth. In the home half of the frame, Toronto got runners on first and second with two out, but Alexander pitched tough, retiring Nelson Liriano on a fly ball to end the threat.

Jeff Musselman came on in the top of the 11th for Toronto. Facing him was the Tigers’ 40-year-old first baseman Darrell Evans. The man they affectionately called “Howdy Doody” promptly poked one over the right-field fence, his 33rd homer of the season. The Tigers were back on top.

Sparky decided to stick it out with Alexander in the bottom of the 11th. Lloyd Moseby struck out to open the inning, but up came that man again, Juan Beniquez, who had delivered the key blow the night before. Beniquez reached on an error by shortstop Alan Trammell, which set up a two-out, game-tying single by Jesse Barfield later in the inning. Due to Trammell’s error, the run was unearned, and Alexander was sent to the showers, with no opportunity to win a game in which he’d pitched his heart out.

Neither team scored in the 12th. In the 13th, the Tigers’ cult hero, Jim Walewander, drew a leadoff walk from Edwin Nunez. Whitaker bunted him over to second. Evans was walked intentionally, bringing Gibson back up to the dish. He drilled a single into center field to score Walewander with the go-ahead run. Henneman, Mark Thurmond, and Noles slammed the door on the Jays in the bottom of the inning for a hard fought 3-2 win.

The four-game series had drawn 181,434 customers, who witnessed four wonderfully dramatic baseball games.

“Any team can pull out a win when it’s in first place, that’s not pressure,” Sparky observed. “But we had to win today while having our butts nailed to the wall and we did. That is pressure.”

In the eleventh hour, the Tigers had managed to salvage at least one game in the series. Instead of a 4½ game deficit, Detroit left Toronto trailing by only 2½ with seven left to play, all at Tiger Stadium. “But,” said Gibson, “to tell the truth, I’d rather be in Toronto’s position than ours with a week to go. See you in Detroit next week.”

Gibson’s talk of bear traps turned out to be true. Who could have predicted on Saturday, as Juan Beniquez stood on third pumping his fists following his game-ending, bases-clearing triple, with the Exhibition Stadium crowd was in a frenzy, that that would be Toronto’s final victory of the season? But it was so. The Blue Jays lost their final seven games of 1987, including a three-game sweep at the hands of the Tigers on the final weekend. In Game 161, Trammell’s 12th-inning single drove home Walewander for a 3-2 Tiger triumph, putting the Tigers in first by a full game. Then, on that fateful final Sunday, Tanana pitched a masterful shutout, securing a nail-biting 1-0 victory on the strength of a Larry Herndon home run.

“You know me,” Tanana said. “I slopped them to death, and then gave them my heat at 83 miles an hour.”

Was it a great comeback by the Tigers, or a colossal collapse by Toronto? Certainly the Tigers won when their backs were to the wall, and that is the mark of a champion. George Bell, the MVP of 1987, laid an egg down the stretch, hitting .111 with no extra-base hits and only one RBI in his team’s season-ending seven-game losing streak.

The Tigers’ bubble burst in the ALCS against the Minnesota Twins, a team that had finished 85-77 in a weak division. The Twins outhustled and outplayed Detroit, taking the Series 4 games to 1. But for pure excitement, there’s never been anything to equal the final weeks of the 1987 Tigers’ season.

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