O Canada! Welcome to the World Series.
The Blue Jays got there Wednesday with a vengeance, crushing Oakland 9-2 to win the American League playoffs in six games and exorcising seven years' worth of ghosts.
"Trust me, I know how big this is, how much this means to so many people up here after all those years of coming so close," said Joe Carter, whose first-inning home run triggered Toronto's 13-hit barrage against Mike Moore and a parade of relievers. "And we're not finished. To bring Canada a World Series is great, but we're trying to bring (it) a World Series champion."
They brought Toronto its first pennant in its 16 years in the majors with Juan Guzman pitching seven innings of five-hit, eight-strikeout ball, putting to rest the debate over starting a pitcher on three days' rest.
"We talked before the game," Guzman said of a conversation with manager Cito Gaston. "He told me, "You know what you can do. You're the boss on the mound. Just go hard and do your best.'
("I said it to him a couple of times in Spanish and English," Gaston confided. "I just wanted to make sure he knew what was going on.")
They did it with Carter and Candy Maldonado hitting home runs that put the Athletics into a 6-0 hole before they even managed their first hit.
"I told the guys before the game, "Get on my back. I'll carry us,' " Carter said. "This team has been carrying me throughout the playoffs. I came here determined I was going to do something. I told Derek Bell, "You guys jump on. I'm going to get us off to a big lead.' You don't expect things to happen so quickly, but I was confident."
And they did it with their often placid fans roaring on every play.
So after a brief history of "failure," (winning division championships but getting no further), the Blue Jays have turned baseball's championship into a truly World Series (Japan not included). The indoor fireworks that reverberated through SkyDome as the players piled upon each other was worthy of any Canada Day celebration.
Gone are the ghosts of '85, when the Blue Jays, one win away from the World Series, lost three in a row to Kansas City. Gone is the memory of '91, when they split two games in Minnesota, then lost three in a row at SkyDome.
Gone are the Blow Jays.
"Everybody said we'd choke in the end," ALCS MVP Roberto Alomar said. "We didn't. Now we can take the monkey off our backs. I wasn't here all those years before. Everybody said we choked and choked and choked. Everywhere I go that's all they'd talk about.
"So the fans deserve this. They come here every night, pay to see us play. Now we have a World Series for them. That means a lot to us."
Guzman, the Game 3 winner in Oakland, had shrugged off questions about whether he could hold the Athletics in check after only three days' rest. Did he ever. For two innings he was perfect. For four, he held the A's hitless. For five, he shut them out.
And in the middle innings, when the A's put runners in scoring position and threatened to worm their way back into the game, Guzman sent them back to the dugout talking to themselves with inning-ending strikeouts _ including Rickey Henderson twice.
"The few little chances we had against him, he not only got outs, we didn't even get contact," A's manager Tony La Russa said.
"It makes it a lot easier to call a game when you've got a guy who can throw 96 miles an hour," Toronto catcher Pat Borders said. "Juan threw as hard today as I've seen him throw all year. And he had good control. No, great control. Fastball, slider and changeup."
The Athletics countered with the more-rested but less-effective Moore, the Game 2 loser. The Blue Jays trampled him, Carter nailing Moore with a two-run homer in the first inning and Maldonado unloading a three-run shot in the third.
The 51,335 fans were in a party mood from the outset, and Henderson, the speedy and outspoken Oakland outfielder who singlehandedly ran Toronto out of the playoffs two years ago, gave the faithful reason to celebrate at the outset.
Henderson, the target of the crowd's incessant "Rick-eee" chant, dropped Devon White's leadoff fly ball down the third-base line. One out later, Carter put Moore's 2-2 pitch 405 feet over the centerfield fence, beyond the glove of a leaping Willie Wilson.
Guzman said the two-run lead didn't change his approach to the game. "They have a good team. They could have come back and tied it up, maybe gone ahead."
But six runs? "That makes a difference," Guzman said. "That made it comfortable."
The third inning began with Alomar's leadoff single and stolen base, an intentional walk to Dave Winfield with one out and John Olerud's ground-rule double down the rightfield line that made it 3-0. Three pitches later, Maldonado hit his second homer of the playoffs a 424-footer to centerfield.
It effectively ended Moore's afternoon. As La Russa strode to the mound, the frenetic fans began chanting, "We want Eck!" But Dennis Eckersley, the ace reliever who gave up the game-turning, series-turning two-run homer to Alomar in Game 4 in Oakland, never picked up a ball Wednesday.
WORLD SERIES SCHEDULE
Game 1: Saturday, Toronto at Atlanta, 8:29 p.m.
Game 2: Sunday, Toronto at Atlanta, 8:29 p.m.
Game 3: Tuesday, Atlanta at Toronto, 8:29 p.m.
Game 4: Wednesday, Atlanta at Toronto, 8:26 p.m.
Game 5: Oct. 22, Atlanta at Toronto, 8:26 p.m.-x
Game 6: Oct. 24, Toronto at Atlanta, 8:26 p.m.-x
Game 7: Oct. 25, Toronto at Atlanta, 8:29 p.m.-x
x-if necessary. All games on Ch. 13 and WFNS-910 and WBRD-1420.