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Blue Jays make AL East take notice; Reuschel a gem of consistency

Some teams win big. Some win with flair. Some even win ``ugly,'' as the saying goes. And then there are the Toronto Blue Jays, who win inconspicuously! South of the border the Blue Jays are a credit card commercial (Do you know me?). Manager Jimy Williams is best known to trivia buffs as a guy who insists that his first name be spelled with only one m. And except for George Bell, who has been one of the league leaders all year in homers and runs batted in, most of the Toronto players are a few notches below the ``household name'' category. Yet in the American League East, an elite division that houses the glamorous New York Yankees, the hard-hat Detroit Tigers, and the defending league champion Boston Red Sox, there's a good chance it will be the Blue Jays who go to the playoffs.

Led by a starting rotation featuring Jimmy Key, Dave Stieb, Jim Clancy, and John Cerutti, Toronto has fashioned the second-best earned-run average in the league. And now the Blue Jays have added Old St. Knuck, better known as Phil Niekro (age 48), whose knuckleball over a 24-year career has fluttered to more than 300 victories.

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It was a typical pennant-race deal: Toronto getting the veteran who might make a difference now while the out-of-the-race Cleveland Indians picked up a couple of promising minor-league prospects who could help them in the future. And of course it was a great break for Niekro, who despite his illustrious achievements is still looking for his first chance to pitch in a World Series. (Phil worked five scoreless innings only to eventually lose to Chicago in his Toronto debut Thursday night, but is still counted on as a plus in the coming weeks.)

As for offense, Toronto has enough power hitters laced into its starting lineup that opposing pitchers are always operating under pressure. Bell, who is slugging at a pace that would produce nearly 50 homers and 130 or more RBIs, is the big gun, and he has a solid supporting cast. And to set the table there is Tony Fernandez, who not only is one of the slickest infielders around but who last year had the most hits (212) of any shortstop in this century. Although Fernandez is lagging slightly behind that pace, he continues to lead his team in getting on base and to rank among the league's top 10 batters.

``Nobody knows us,'' said Tom (the Terminator) Henke, who minds the Toronto bullpen so well he already has 25 saves. ``People think we're a bunch of Canadians,'' added first baseman Willie Upshaw, whose swing makes baseballs flat on one side.

That refers, of course, to the general public. Baseball people are well aware of the Blue Jays - and have been ever since they rose up to second place in 1984 and won the division title the following year.

``Back in March, I felt that Toronto might be the team to beat in our division,'' explained Yankee manager Lou Piniella, who also admits to even greater concern now about his neighbors to the north.

Of course as a unit, there may not be a better all-around outfield in the American League than center fielder Lloyd Moseby, right fielder Jesse Barfield, and left fielder Bell, who sometimes talks to his bat but rarely the media. All three are excellent RBI men, and their range in the field is just below that of a Boeing 747.

And don't forget Ernie Whitt, probably the game's most underrated catcher.

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Back in the winter of 1985, when Williams was named to replace the ever-popular Bobby Cox as the Blue Jay manager, doubts about his ability formed like ice on the ponds of Canada's northernmost provinces. Jimy silenced the skeptics with a division title that year, yet when the best the defending champion Jays could do was finish fourth in '86, the chorus started up again.

But it's surprising how much smarter Williams has become in less than 12 months. It must be that clean, fresh Canadian air. Certainly Bell and Company, plus the way Jimy juggles his pitchers, have nothing to do with it! Pittsburgh pitcher shines

For most of this season, the National League hasn't seen a more consistent pitcher than 38-year-old Rick Reuschel of the mistake-prone Pittsburgh Pirates. Reuschel, who years ago switched to finesse after arm problems short-circuited him as a power pitcher, has the lowest earned-run average (2.63) of any starter in the league. The veteran right-hander also leads the league in complete games (8), and his three shutouts - all in July - have him among the leaders in that category as well.

Reuschel's 8-6 record hardly tells the story of his effectiveness - as is usually the case with a pitcher on a last-place team. Only once in his first eight starts did Rick surrender more than one earned run. Add to this the fact that he lost one game in which he didn't give up an earned run and pitched another in which he went eight shutout innings without being involved in the decision and you get an idea of his craftsmanship.

The Pirates, who signed Reuschel as a free agent 2 years ago, call him K mart - partly because he was a bargain, and also because his strikeouts usually outnumber his walks 2 to 1 (78-35 at the moment).

If you're wondering what's ahead for Rick, there's speculation he could be sent to Cincinnati in a late-season trade, since the Pirates, NL East cellar-dwellers, are a young team in the early stages of a rebuilding program.

One pitcher of Reuschel's quality could help the Reds lock up first place in the National League West. In return, the Pirates are expected to ask for power hitter Nick Esasky, 11 years Rick's junior.

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