Monday, August 16, 2004

Of Jays Gone By....Remembering Jimmy Key

Ironically, 1993 and 1994--as a member of the New York Yankees--defined Jimmy Key's career. He won 35 games those two seasons and lost just ten. His aggregate ERA for those two campaigns was 3.11 (140 ERA+). Over the rest of his career which began in Toronto and ended in Baltimore it was 3.58 (122 ERA+). His two healthy seasons for the Yankees he won almost 78% of his games, other than those two seasons he still won almost 58% of his decisions. Those first two seasons wearing pinstripes encapsulated what might have been. In baseball it's called: "coulda, woulda, shoulda." Yankee Stadium has had the reputation of being friendly to left handed pitchers. Whitey Ford, Lefty Gomez and Herb Pennock all carved Hall of Fame careers in Yankee Stadium. Other stellar lefties, such as Ron Guidry, Eddie Lopat and Tommy Byrne all enjoyed stellar careers or part of great career playing in the Bronx. Herb Pennock was an average pitcher before coming to New York. While pitching in Philadelphia and in the graveyard for lefties -- Fenway Park, Pennock pitched just over .500 baseball (77-72, 3.73 ERA). However after coming to the Yankees as a great many Red Sox of that era did (Babe Ruth, Carl Mays, Red Ruffing etc.), he punched his ticket to Cooperstown by going 162-90 with an ERA of 3.54, very respectable for that era of high octane offense.

Key made his debut with the Toronto Blue Jays as part of a bullpen that was considered suspect at best, a veritable arsonist‘s convention at worst. He did manage to save 10 games but had an earned run average close to five. The following year -- which coincided with the Jays first Amercan League East Divisional Championship -- Key served notice that he was a bit of a rarity, a young lefty with good command of his stuff, much the same way as Andy Pettite was in the 1990's. He made 32 starts, went 14-6 and dropped his ERA down to 3.00 (141 ERA+) exactly. That would begin a run of ten consecutive seasons with at least 12 wins. His first exposure to post season play was rocky. In the 1985 American League Championship Series he started games two and five going 0-1 with an ERA of 5.19.

In 1986 he duplicated his previous seasons 14 wins. However in 1987 he had a banner year. This was the year of the "juiced ball" where offensive numbers went through the roof. A's rookie Mark McGwire set a freshman record for home runs with 49 and Twins' starter, Bert Blyleven surrendered 50 home runs -- also a record. Key, for his part, led the league in ERA at 2.76 (164 ERA+), won 17 games and finished second in Cy Young voting to Roger Clemens. He pitched the final game of the season with the American League East flag on the line against the Detroit Tigers on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. He pitched brilliantly surrendering a single run, a home run, by Larry Herndon, but the Jays couldn't score.

In 1988, various arm miseries began settling on Key. Over the next three seasons, he only topped 200 innings pitched once, in 1989. From 1988-90 Key won a total of 28 games. However, when the Jays again made it to the post season in 1989 Key was much more effective in the American League Championship Series. Against the Oakland juggernaut Key was the only pitcher to notch a win for Toronto, pitching six innings and surrendering three runs in game three of the series.

As better health set in, Key continued his remarkable career. He helped pitch the Jays to the post season again in 1991 finishing the season 16-12, with a fine ERA of 3.05 (138 ERA+). His start in Game Three of the American League Championship Series was much like the final game in 1987 in that he pitched well, but received no offensive support. He endured a shaky first inning where he coughed up two runs but shut the Twins out until relieved after the end of six innings. The following season Key struggled for much of the campaign. At one point he was 8-13 until he caught fire, and he wouldn't cool off the rest of the year. He won his last five decisions however it wasn't enough in the eyes of manager Cito Gaston to earn a spot in the post season rotation. He saw action in Game Five of the American League Championship Series when he relieved an ineffective David Cone and pitched three shutout innings.

For the World Series, Jays manager Cito Gaston decided to stick with a three man rotation for the World Series, again relegating Key to the bullpen. However, after Jack Morris was shaky in Game One and David Cone, while not as shaky, was not that effective in Game Two. Gaston decided to insert Key into the rotation for Game Four thereby giving his other three starters and additional day of rest.

Key would make Gaston look like a genius. Key dueled with the Braves Tom Glavine into the eighth inning, at SkyDome in Toronto and surrendering a single run. He left the game to a standing ovation. In Game Six at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, Toronto closer, Tom Henke allowed the Braves to tie the game. Henke pitched in the tenth but Gaston brought Key in again when an Alfredo Griffin error at short cost him an unearned run after the Jays scored two in the top of the eleventh inning. With John Smoltz pinch running at third and Otis Nixon (who drove in the tying run off Henke in the ninth) batting, Gaston came out to inquire whether Key wanted to pitch to Nixon. Key acknowledged that Nixon gave him problems so Gaston brought in Mike Timlin to get the save. Key's final World Series tally for the 1992 tournament was 2-0 with an ERA of 1.00 exactly.

During the offseason Key filed for free agency but was negotiating a return to Toronto, but the sticking point was that Key wanted a four year guaranteed contract whereas the Jays would only go three. In the interim, the Jays would ink Dave Stewart to a deal and subsequently pulled their offer to Key off the table. Key then inked a four year deal with the New York Yankees on December 10th 1992.

As previously mentioned, Yankee Stadium has been traditionally kind to southpaw hurlers. Key, who'd been generally acknowledged as one of the finer left handers in the American League proceeded to take his game up a notch. He made his first major mark with the Yankees on April 27th when he pitched 5-0 one-hit, complete-game victory against the California Angels. Key went on to set a career high in wins with 18, strikeouts with 173 and matched his 1985 ERA with a mark of 3.00 (141 ERA+) and finished fourth in Cy Young voting. Key picked right up where he left off in 1994. The Yankees had the best record in the American League in large part to Key who again had a stellar season finishing 17-4 with a nifty ERA of 3.27 (140 ERA+). It was as close to the Cy Young as he would ever get finishing second behind a soon-to-be-teammate, David Cone who was pitching for Kansas City that year.

Key's tenure with the Yankees would come to a screeching stop in May 1995 when he was put on the disabled list with a badly damaged rotator cuff which required surgery. He logged just over 30 innings that year with a 1-2 record and an ERA of 5.64. With surgery on a rotator cuff, it usually takes a pitcher about two years to get up to speed. In 1996 Key was barely above average going 12-11 with an earned run mark of 4.68 (108 ERA+) over thirty starts and enduring two stints on the disabled list in both May and June. However Key would become a key contributor to the Yankees post season aspirations that year.

When the American League Divisional Series opened against the Texas Rangers, Key was given the nod to pitch game three. Although he wasn't on top of his game, he nonetheless left the game only down 2-1. The Yankees would go on to rally in the ninth to take a 2-1 lead in the series. In the American League Championship Series against the Baltimore Orioles, he was again given the ball to start the third game. This time out he was vintage Jimmy Key. The crafty southpaw endured a rocky start in the first inning where he gave up a pair of runs then completely shut down the Orioles the rest of the way. By the time he left the game at the end of eight, he given up just three hits and a walk, striking out five. When the Yankees turned their attention to the World Series against the National League Champions -- the Atlanta Braves -- Key drew the short straw as he was slated to face Greg Maddux twice. Maddux had just finished a season where he'd win a record fourth consecutive Cy Young Award. Their first tilt was slated for game two at Yankee Stadium. Key lasted six innings against the Braves’ ace and was tagged for the loss, putting the Bronx Bombers in a seemingly untenable position, down 0-2 in the series with the next three games to be played at Atlanta. They matched up again in game six with the Yankees -- who had swept all three games south of the Mason-Dixon Line -- up 3-2 and in a position to clinch the Fall Classic. Key again pitched into the sixth when Yankee skipper Joe Torre turning the game over to his elite bullpen corps who nailed down the championship. It was Key's second clinching victory in World Series play, his first coming in relief against the same Atlanta Braves in 1992 when he was in Toronto.

Key, who was coming off both a decidedly average regular season, was now at the end of his contract with the Yankees. The greying of his hair at the temples served as a reminder that Key was now -- athletically speaking -- getting a little "long in the tooth." He would turn 36 in August of the 1997 season and was still recovering from his rotator cuff surgery. The Yankees decided not to retain Key who then inked a two year contract with the Yankees division rivals, the Baltimore Orioles.

Key showed his resiliency in 1997 by flashing his old form while pitching for Baltimore. He won 16 games, his fifth time at that level or higher. His 3.43 ERA (128 ERA+) was impressive considering his age and surgically repaired shoulder. Key and staff ace formed a formidable 1-2 punch that would conquer the Yankees in the American League East. Key was given the ball for game two against the Cleveland Indians and set a record that he'd rather forget. He set a major league record, becoming the first pitcher to hit three batters in one inning of a postseason game. Key's one-inning effort tied the record for hit batsmen in an entire championship series set by Detroit's Frank Tanana in 1987. After throwing a called third strike past Cleveland's Bip Roberts, the game's first batter, Key hit Omar Vizquel and allowed a two-run homer to Manny Ramirez, giving the Indians a 2-0 lead over the Orioles in Game 2 of the AL championship series. Matt Williams singled and Key then hit David Justice before getting Sandy Alomar on a groundout. Tony Fernandez was hit by a pitch to load the bases and Key fell behind Kevin Seitzer 3-0 before striking him out to end the inning. Key only lasted four innings before being replaced by Scott Kamieniecki. He would return the favor in game five when he came in to relieve Kamieniecki throwing three shutout innings at Jacobs Field. It would be his last post season pitching appearance as the Tribe would go on to represent the American League in the 1997 World Series.

The following year, 1998 Key tried valiantly to pitch through an inflamed rotator cuff. In order to conseve his arm he pitched both in the rotation and out of the bullpen with mixed results. Although he won six and lost three, his ERA shot up from 3.43 (128 ERA+) in 1997 to 4.20 (108 ERA+) in 1998. On January 30 1999, he released the following statement:

"After four months of careful thoughts and reflection on the status of my career, the health of my arm and where I am in my personal life, I have decided to retire."

Key Facts....:

  • Key earned All-ACC honors as a pitcher and DH in 1982 while at Clemson, compiling a 9-3 record and 2.79 ERA on the mound and hitting .300 with 21 doubles.
  • Key was selected by Chicago White Sox organization in 10th round of free-agent draft (June 5, 1979); but did not sign.
  • Key was selected by Toronto Blue Jays organization in third round of free-agent draft (June 7, 1982) and signed.
  • Prior to his record setting three hit batsmen in game two of the 1997 American League Divisional Series against Cleveland, he had hit one in 61 2-3 previous postseason innings. The regular-season record also is three hit batters in one inning, accomplished nine times in the NL and six in the AL.
  • Key was named American League Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News twice (1987 and 1994). He was also named lefthanded pitcher on The Sporting News American League. All-Star team (1987 and 1993-94).
  • Key appeared in one game as pinch-runner (1985).
  • Key was the starting pitcher in August 1992 game at SkyDome when the Milwaukee Brewers scored 22 runs on 31 hits.
  • Key had 10 consecutive seasons with at least 12 wins.
  • Although he never pitched a no-hitter, he pitched two one hitters. The first against Chicago on May 22, 1986 and the second against the California Angels on April 27th 1993.
  • Key never traded once in his career and never pitched outside of the American League East.
  • Key notched 10 saves in 1984 and never garnered another over the rest of his career including 18 post-1984 relief appearances.

Best Regards