The Blue Jays can win without Joe Carter for a couple of weeks, they can win with a catcher in leftfield, and they can win with wobbly starting pitching. But the two-time defending world champions can't win without closer Duane Ward. The big righthander has biceps tendinitis, which could sideline him until May. "Then we'll really know how important he is," says Toronto manager Cito Gaston. "I already know. He's been like an MVP for us for the last few years."
Ward is arguably the most indispensable player in the AL East. From 1988 to '92, he was perhaps the best setup man in history. Last year, in his first season as a closer, he set a club record with 45 saves. Opposing batters hit .193 off him, the sixth consecutive year that the league batting average against him has dropped—a baseball first. He throws 95 mph, has a slider that neither righthanded nor lefthanded hitters can touch, a killer forkball and good control. "He's as good as Eck was in his best days," says Blue Jay pitcher Dave Stewart, a former teammate of A's closer Dennis Eckersley.
On Jan. 4, while Ward was getting ready to work out at home, his right arm fell stiff, but he threw anyway. Three days later he couldn't raise the arm over his head. "I couldn't pull the covers over me at night," Ward says. "I have no idea how I hurt it." His aim had ached at times while he was throwing 100 or more innings in each of five straight seasons (1988-92), but he was always able to pitch through the discomfort. He took a cortisone shot last August, then pitched right through the World Series. A second cortisone shot in January didn't help.
Ward finally began to feel some improvement when he threw at spring training for the first time in mid-March. By then Mike Timlin, who labored as Ward's setup man last season, had become a closer candidate. As had starter Todd Stottlemyre, who was last seen walking every hitter in sight and sliding on his chin in Game 4 of the World Series. Whichever one doesn't become Ward's understudy will have to spell middle reliever Danny Cox, who had arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder last Friday and will be out until at least the All-Star break.
If all that wasn't bad enough, Carter—Series hero and the game's top RBI man over the last eight years—suffered a fractured right thumb when he was hit by a pitch on March 23. He could miss the first few weeks of the season, but Carter was testing the injury in batting practice just five days after being hit. Meanwhile, catcher Carlos Delgado beat out two other rookies for the leftfield job left vacant when Rickey Henderson was not re-signed. Suddenly the Blue Jays have more question marks than at any time since Gaston became manager in 1989.
"The holes are supposed to be smaller as the spring goes on: we're going in the opposite direction," says Blue Jay DH Paul Molitor. "I'm most concerned about Ward and Cox."
Cox can be replaced, but Ward? What if this is the first sign of a workhorse finally breaking down? "You don't want to go two months without him. You don't want to lose your Number I guy," says Stewart, "He's a rock."
And without him, Toronto's hopes for a three-peat will sink like one.
Gonzalez is the Jays' shortstop of the future—perhaps by midseason.