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The story of one of the most epic pennant-race collapses ever

It’s one that’s nearly been lost to history.

George Bell, 1987 A.L. MVP (and future Cub)
Photo by Gray Mortimore/Getty Images

You have probably read much about famous pennant-race collapses. The 1951 Dodgers. The 1964 Phillies. The 1969 Cubs.

Here’s one that you likely haven’t heard much about, as it seems to have been almost forgotten, and I am writing this in the hope that this final-week collapse won’t be matched by the 2018 Cubs.

This article is about the 1987 Blue Jays. From the mid 1980s through the early 1990s, the Jays were a very good team. They won the A.L. East had a three games to one lead in the 1985 ALCS before losing to the Royals, won the division again in 1989 and lost again in the ALCS. They didn’t break through in the postseason until their pair of World Series wins in 1991 and 1992.

The 1987 Jays might have been the best of the bunch, though. To this day they share the Toronto franchise record for wins (96) in a single season with the 1992 Series champions.

They held first place for most of June, then fell behind, and then caught and passed the Tigers in the A.L. East, going back-and-forth with them for first and second place for much of August.

On Saturday, September 26, 31 years ago today, they won their third straight over the Tigers to open up a 3½-game lead with seven games remaining. They had posted a 19-5 record in September through that date.

They had one more game remaining with the Tigers in that series, which was in Toronto. They had a 1-0 lead going into the ninth inning, three outs away from making it a 4½-game lead with six remaining, which would have been nearly insurmountable.

Kirk Gibson led off that inning with a game-tying homer, and the Jays lost in 13.

Still, they had a 2½-game lead with six left.

They got swept at home in a three-game set by the Brewers, who won 91 games and finished third in the A.L. East that year.

Meanwhile, the Tigers were splitting a four-game series with the Orioles, and then the Jays and Tigers had a three-game weekend set in Detroit to end the season. It began with the Jays still in first place by one game.

The Jays lost the Friday game 4-3 and the teams were tied for first place with two games remaining. They lost the Saturday game 3-2 in 12 innings to fall out of first place for the first time since September 20.

So the Jays needed to win the final game of the season to force a tiebreaker game. On the mound was Jimmy Key, their best pitcher, who led the American League in ERA, WHIP and ERA+ and finished second in Cy Young voting.

Key threw a magnificent game, allowing three hits and one run.

Frank Tanana threw a six-hit shutout for the Tigers and they were division champions with a 1-0 win. With no wild card back then, the Jays went home.

The Blue Jays’ magic number that year for the division title had dropped to five. I believe that’s the lowest magic number recorded by any team that did not subsequently go on to win a postseason spot.

As an aside to all this, one of the reasons the Tigers played so well down the stretch was their trade acquisition on August 12 of Doyle Alexander, a 36-year-old in his 17th big-league season. It was kind of a Cole Hamels-type deal; Alexander was having a mediocre season in Atlanta but went 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA in 11 starts for Detroit, one of the biggest reasons they overcame the Jays and won the division. WAR didn’t exist as a stat back then, but baseball-reference says that performance was worth 3.6 bWAR, a huge number for seven weeks’ worth of pitching. Alexander made two starts in the ALCS, was bad in both and the Tigers lost in five games to the Twins.

Oh, and the prospect the Tigers sent to the Braves in that deal? Some kid named John Smoltz, possibly the worst deal in Tigers history.

I wrote this mostly as a catharsis, because this was possibly the biggest collapse in recent big-league history in the final week, and it had been nearly forgotten.

And this year’s Cubs aren’t going to match that.