They have been here before _ up three games to one, just a victory away from the World Series. But the Blue Jays have never gotten here the way they did Sunday. If nothing else, they probably have shaken off that "choke" collar and fastened it around Oakland's neck.
Roberto Alomar's two-run homer off A's ace reliever Dennis Eckersley in the ninth inning wiped out the last vestige of what had been a five-run Oakland lead, and Pat Borders hit a sacrifice fly in the 11th for the 7-6 victory.
But those are only the basics.
"This says something very special about this team," Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said. "I think we buried a few ghosts. It's going to be a lot easier coming to the ballpark knowing that if we win just one more ballgame, we take this back to Toronto (for the World Series)."
"I can handle this for me," said Eckersley, who didn't get the loss (that went to Kelly Downs) but might as well have, the way he felt. "It's just that I feel bad for the team. Hey, we've got to win three in a row now. It's not easy."
But it can happen. The Blue Jays were up 3-1 to Kansas City in 1985 and lost.
The Blue Jays also were 1-1 with Minnesota and heading home to SkyDome last season and didn't win again. They have worn the derisive tag "Blow Jays" for quite a while.
"Everybody always talks about the past, the past, the past," said Alomar. "Who cares about the past? We have to care about the present. I wasn't here when they didn't win the big ones."
Alomar's home run didn't win the big one. It only tied it. But it was as big a blow as Eckersley has given up since the back-door slider that the Dodgers' Kirk Gibson sent over the wall to win Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.
Eck had inherited 31 runners during the season and had allowed only two to score. In the eighth inning, he inherited two _ and both scored.
Bob Welch had a great game going, a 6-1 lead built on a five-run Oakland battering of Toronto starter Jack Morris in the third inning and Ruben Sierra's RBI double off Todd Stottlemyre in the sixth.
"I was tempted to take Morris out (in the third)," Gaston said of his ace, who nearly went from being a two-time playoff winner against Toronto last season to a two-time loser with them now. "I felt he didn't have good stuff, but he's done so much for this ballclub that I had to give him a chance to pull himself together."
The Blue Jays began pulling themselves out of their hole against Welch in the eighth. Alomar led off with a double that chased the Oakland starter. Jeff Parrett took over, and Joe Carter singled Alomar home. Then Dave Winfield singled.
In came Eckersley.
"Bringing Dennis in in the eighth was definitely a stretch because he threw 16 pitches (Saturday)," A's manager Tony La Russa said. "But with that part of the order, as soon as the first three guys get on base, it kind of takes it out of your hands."
John Olerud singled, scoring Carter. Candy Maldonado singled, scoring Winfield. It was 6-4, but Eckersley finally got three outs, punching the air as he struck out Ed Sprague for the third out.
"I'd finally stopped the bleeding," Eckersley said. "I thought that was the game. As it turned out, it wasn't.
Devon White singled to left to start the ninth and kept going to third when Rickey Henderson let the ball skip past him. It didn't matter where White was. Alomar pounced on Eckersley's 2-2 fastball and sent it over the wall in right. He knew the instant he hit it that it was gone, raising his arms in glee.
"This wasn't the Eckersley I saw before (the playoffs)," Alomar said. "His slider wasn't big; his fastball was flat, not sinking like it used to. I was assuming he was going to throw me a pitch inside, and he did.
"Sometimes the little guys, they're the guys who make the plays in the big games."
Eckersley said he didn't feel quite right on the mound when he came in. "My stuff was in and out, all over. I didn't feel real sharp."
But the feeling dissipated when he got out of the eighth. "I didn't even think about the ninth then," he said.
The discomfort _ he couldn't quite describe it _ came back in the ninth. "It was a weird feeling. I don't feel like that very often, but there's a lot of times I haven't felt that good and have gotten people out. So why worry?"
Two outs and an Olerud single later, Eckersley was gone. The five hits he gave up were the most he'd allowed in any appearance this season. The Blue Jays batted .211 against Eck during the season. In the playoffs, they're batting .471 against him. "I haven't been hit as hard all year as I have been the last two outings," he said.
Jim Corsi took over and walked the bases loaded before getting Borders on an inning-ending grounder, then Downs bailed him out of a two-on, two-out jam in the 10th.
And in the 11th, Derek Bell walked and Maldonado singled him to third. After first baseman Mark McGwire stabbed Kelly Gruber's liner to keep the game tied, Borders untied it with his fly ball to left. Bell easily beat Henderson's throw home.
"We've been in some games like this before, where we came back from the dead, but never one that meant as much as this one," Borders said. "When we were down 6-1, there wasn't much talk on the bench. But we've come back from further down. We hadn't written this game off. Not with the big bats we have. They'll get you runs in a hurry."
ALCS Game 4
BLUE JAYS 7, A'S 6
(Blue Jays lead series, 3-1.)
ALCS Game 5
BLUE JAYS at A'S
TV/Radio: 3 p.m. today, Ch. 13; 910 AM.
Starting pitchers: Blue Jays' David Cone (4-3. 2.55 ERA) vs. Athletics' Dave Stewart (12-10, 3.66).