So the road to the World Series will go through Toronto after all. Dave Stewart and the Oakland Athletics made sure of that Monday, undoubtedly sending a chill through the Blue Jays' fans in the Great White North.
The A's 6-2 win forced a sixth game Wednesday in SkyDome, delaying _ or worse _ Canada's debut in the crown jewel of America's national pastime.
Stewart had guaranteed an Oakland victory in this fifth game of the American League playoffs. And he delivered, while Ruben Sierra homered and his A's teammates ran roughshod over David Cone and the Jays' suddenly shoddy defense (four errors Sunday, three Monday).
"Stew had the eye of the tiger out there," A's manager Tony La Russa said. "We've faced elimination in the post-season three times and this is the first time we've won the elimination game. And Stew is the guy that did it."
So once again, the spectre of 1985 creeps into the Toronto psyche.
Seven years ago, after the Blue Jays had won their first AL East crown, they were up 3-1 in games and needed just one more win to eliminate the Royals and reach the World Series. Instead, Toronto lost in Kansas City, then came home and lost twice more.
The Blue Jays could have taken the American League pennant home with them Monday. Instead, they take home the emotional baggage of a history their fans know all too well.
"They were nervous even before we started this thing," Jimmy Key, the odd man out in Toronto's post-season pitching rotation, said of the Blue Jays' congenital worriers. "Whether we're up three games to two or behind two games to three, whatever the story is, until this ballclub goes further than the (league) championship series, they're going to say that."
"Say, "There they go again.' That's not fair. This is a different team. All I can say is "Let us play and let's see what happens. Then you can talk. Don't talk now because we're ahead three games to two and we've got two games at home.'
"If I was a fan," Key added, "I'd be ecstatic."
"We're going to win (Monday)," Stewart said before relief ace Dennis Eckersley and the A's gave away Sunday's game. "I guarantee I'm going to do the job."
So Stewart did the smart thing. He locked the bullpen door, going the distance with a seven-hitter and five strikeouts and surviving a shaky seventh inning when the Blue Jays got their final run before Roberto Alomar lined into a double play with two men on.
"He pitched a great ballgame," Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said of Stewart.
Did Stewart expect a complete game? "I expected to do whatever it took to win a ballgame today," he said.
As in Game 1, Dave Winfield hammered Stewart for a solo homer, this one in the fourth inning. By then, though, the Athletics had three runs.
They got two in the first on the first of Jerry Browne's four singles and Sierra's homer. "I made a mistake trying to hold Browne too close, quickening up my delivery," Cone said, "and ended up putting a fastball too far over the plate and Sierra hit it out."
Oakland got three more runs in the fifth when both Cone and the Toronto defense fell apart.
Rickey Henderson, the flint that sparks the Athletics' attack, had helped rattle Cone into surrendering a fourth-inning run, walking, reaching third on Cone's wild pickoff throw and scoring on Browne's second single.
Now, in the fifth, Henderson helped put the game away.
Lance Blankenship led off with a grounder that third baseman Kelly Gruber kicked away for a two-base error, and Henderson moved him to third with a perfect bunt single to the left of the plate.
Browne singled again, making it 4-1. When rightfielder Joe Carter's wild throw to third bounced past Gruber, Henderson scored. With no one covering third, Browne got there unchallenged, and scored when Sierra ripped a single past Cone into centerfield. Key took over and put out the fire, but the damage was done.
It was 6-1, the same score as Sunday's game before Toronto began its improbable comeback. And in the seventh, Gruber walked and Pat Borders singled and, after Manny Lee struck out, Devon White singled and the Blue Jays had a run.
Then Alomar hit a bullet at Blankenship, who underhanded it to Mike Bordick, doubling Borders off second.
"For a moment there, it looked pretty promising," Gaston said. "Robby hit the ball hard. If it's up the middle, who knows what might happen? Then the guys are pumped up again and Carter's coming to the plate, and Winfield. Who knows?"
"If Robby's hit gets in," Winfield added, "you've got a bona fide rally. It's nail-biting time. You've got a new pitcher. You're into their (bull)pen again."
Well, not necessarily. "I watched Stew closely," La Russa said. "I don't think he ever opened the door."