Saturday, April 01, 2006

April 1st, 1951

Jake Taylor Born

Although now most famous for his heroics for the Indians during the 1989 season--more on them later--Jake Taylor actually had a decently interesting career before arriving in Cleveland, his performance there serving as the fitting end. Originally drafted by Boston in 1969, Taylor slowly worked his way up the system, but suffered the first of knee injuries that would plague him through his career at Triple-A. Originally thought to be only a relatively minor knee sprain, Taylor instead attempted to repeatedly play through the injury and ended up aggravating the problem further.

After a lost season in 1974 on account of the knee problems, Taylor returned to Triple-A in 1975 ; he posted a good season and received a call-up in September, seeing action in a handful of games for the pennant-winning Sox. Taylor became the Sox' back-up in 1976, but saw little time behind Carlton Fisk in both 1976 and 1977. Taylor missed out on the drama of the Sox' 1978 pennant battle with the Yankees, however, as making a rare start in late 1977, Taylor re-injured his knee. After a failed attempt at rehab in the off-season, Taylor was released by the Red Sox. Signed by Houston, Taylor never suited up for the Astros as he missed all of the 1978 season battling his knee problems. Taylor's career appeared over, as he spent the entire 1979 season out of baseball altogether.

As it turned out, the year off was apparently just what Taylor needed; signing with the Mariners he had the best year of his career, hitting over .300 for the first time and taking advantage of the Kingdome to hit twenty-eight homers, easily the team lead. Taylor would stay in Seattle for another three years but never match his 1980 numbers again and after the '83 season, the M's cut him loose as his knee problems again flared up. Now on the wrong side of thirty and with bad knees hurting a never-fantastic defensive reputation, Taylor spent the middle part of the 80s bouncing around Triple-A for Montreal, Boston and the Padres. After a brief September call-up for the Pads in '86, Taylor was released and headed south of the border for the Mexican Leagues. First playing for Las Bromas Magnificas, Taylor's knee problems continued but he refused to admit it was the end of the line and managed to once again to rebound in 1988 while playing for Los Tontos de Abril, helping lead them to a surprising second-place finish.

This is where the most famous part of Taylor's career begins of course, his tenure with the Indians. Predicted by every newspaper in the country to finish dead last after a seemingly deliberate plan by owner Rachel Phelps to sabotage the team, the Indians instead put together a great season. With help from veteran spitba--er, curveballer Eddie Harris and rookie sensation Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn on the mound, and Rookie of the Year Pedro Cerrano, speedy Willie Mays Hayes and Taylor, the Comeback Player of the Year, at the plate, the Lou Brown-managed team bounced back after a terrible start to tie the Yankees for the division title on the season's last day.

Engaging in a one-game playoff for the division crown, the Indians started Eddie Harris on short rest instead of Vaughn, who had struggled against the Yankees, especially with League MVP Clue Haywood. The game was scoreless early on, as Pedro Cerrano struck out (and looked bad) on a curveball from Yankee start Kyle Jackson in the third while Taylor helped keep the Yankees off the board with a snap throw pick off to nail Jeremy Springer at first.

Cerrano continued to struggle in his second at-bat, again looking awful on a Jackson curveball, but the game remained scoreless as Hayes took away a sure Yankee homer in the top of the sixth. Not even Hayes' namesake could've caught the next long drive, however, as Steve Burton crushed one the next inning with a runner on to put the Yankees up 2-0. The Indians got it right back however, after Taylor grounded out to begin the bottom of the inning (apparently re-aggravating his bad knee) Dorn singled and Cerrano, after looking even worse on two Jackson curveballs finally got a hold of one and hit a long home run to tie the game. Cerrano was so overcome by emotion he carried his bat around the bases during his home run trot.
In the top of the ninth Harris retired the first two Yankees but Anthony Sanzlo singled and Tim March doubled, putting a pair of runners in scoring position. Harris then walked Eddie Cheevers on four pitches, and despite the seemingly poor match-up, Brown went to the bullpen, bringing in Vaughn to face Haywood. "Wild Thing" responded brilliantly to his manager's confidence however, striking out the big first baseman on three straight fastballs, the last clocked at 101 MPH.

In the bottom of the ninth Mark Tomlinson nearly ended the game with a deep drive to right field but it was tracked down. Yanks' manager Bill Horton wasted no time in calling in Duke Simpson, the league's Cy Young winner who pitched 118 innings out of the Yankees bullpen with a sterling 1.37, leading the league in saves and K/9. "The Duke" had been dominant for the Yankees towards the end of the season, not allowing a run in his previous sixteen appearances.

Hayes was the first batter to face Simpson and got the Indians started with an infield single he just beat out. Jake Taylor then came to bat, just moments from his greatest glory. Before that could happen, however, Hayes stole second (on another extremely close play) putting himself in scoring position for Taylor. Echoing Babe Ruth, Taylor pointed to the outfield, calling his shot. Responding predictably, Simpson threw a purpose pitch, knocking Taylor on his rear. The catcher got up, dusted himself off and once again called his shot. It all proved a bluff however, as Taylor dropped down a bunt. Incredibly, despite a visible limp, Taylor managed to leg out the bunt, giving Hayes (who had been running on the pitch; it was a designed play) enough time to come around and score just ahead of the tag. The Indians were division champions and Jake Taylor, he of missing whole seasons with knee problems, floating around Triple-A and the Mexican Leagues, was the hero.

Happy Birthday, Jake.

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