Baseball: Blue Jays dance to Morris' tune: Richard Weekes reports on the teams heading towards the World Series hopefully

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IF THE nervous citizens of Toronto need to find one reason why the current bunch of Blue Jays are not about to emulate their 1987, 1989 and 1991 forebears and stumble on the doorstep of the World Series, they should look no further than Jack Morris.

Morris, who pitches the first game of the American League play-offs against Oakland in the SkyDome tomorrow night, has been this way before. Last year, wearing the pinstripes of the Minnesota Twins, he took two games off Toronto and then two more off the Atlanta Braves in the finest World Series ever played.

In a best-of-seven competition, two wins takes you half-way to your destination. But the statistics fail to do justice to Morris's achievement last October. The lugubrious, shambling, moustachioed figure, who seems more suited to riding shotgun with Lee Van Cleef than performing on a sports field, went through fire in the unforgettable seventh game of the Series. Ten times he went to the mound, 10 times he shut down the Atlanta batting line-up, 10 times he returned to the bench, each time the ratchet of pressure winding a little tighter. Relief was not even a consideration.

If the 37-year-old Morris, who led the majors with 21 wins this season, can plug into that level of determination and concentration against Oakland, the A's may find it hard to extend the series to a sixth game. Following Morris, the Blue Jays boast the strong right arm of David Cone and the economical Juan Guzman, whose 95mph fastball, which either sinks or lifts, can confuse the best of opponents.

Toronto also bring plenty of power, and not a little speed, to the plate. Joe Carter, with 33 home runs and well over 100 RBIs to his name this season, is determined to end all the talk of 'Blow Jays', and Roberto Alomar, who lives over the shop in the SkyDome hotel, has burned up the basepaths to the tune of 47 stolen bases.

Dave Stewart, who starts for Oakland tomorrow night, may go down as the best pitcher never to win the Cy Young award. Despite three consecutive 20-win seasons from 1988-90, he always finished second best to Roger Clemens, of Boston, or his team-mate, Bob Welch. However, over the last two years he has struggled, and those glaring eyes no longer strike fear into those who face him.

Still, although Jose Canseco has gone, their manager, Tony La Russa, can call on most of the players who made the Athletics the team of the late 1980s. Mark McGwire, second in this year's home-run race with 42, can win any game with one swing, while Dennis Eckersley possesses uncanny control and unmatched temperament that make him the best closer in the game.

Oakland's problem may be in trying to keep the games close enough to hand over to Eckersley in the eighth or ninth inning. Their pitching has been patchy for most of the season, and La Russa faces his most demanding task yet to take his team into their fourth World Series in five years.

The National League play-offs see a repeat of last year's match-up of the Atlanta Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates. It went to seven games in 1991, and promises to be as close this time, though Pittsburgh may shade it to reach the Series at the third time of asking.

Atlanta's manager, Bobby Cox, has opted for a three-man rotation, with John Smoltz pitching tonight's home opener, followed by Steve Avery tomorrow and Tom Glavine thrust into the Pirates' lair on Friday. Though he is a 20-game winner this season, Glavine may prove the weak link, for he has lost six of his last seven starts since returning from a rib injury.

While Pittsburgh cannot match the Braves' troika on the mound - though Tim Wakefield, with his unplayable knuckleball, and Doug Drabek are no pushovers - they are a superbly balanced side, batting deep in the line-up beyond Andy Van Slyke and Jay Bell, and in Barry Bonds possess the game's most naturally talented player.

His speed around the outfield and timing at the plate make him a feared opponent: witness the major-league high 127 walks he has had this season. 'Everybody has tried to stay away from pitching to him all year,' his manager, Jim Leyland, said. 'Sometimes they can avoid him, sometimes they can't. But they are always aware of his presence.'

Bonds also has something to prove. In the Pirates' last two play- off years, he batted a combined .156, with no home runs and one RBI. Last month he hit .402 and drove in 25 runs. The stage is his.

The New York Mets, embarrassed by their first 90-loss season since 1983, apologised to their fans in full-page advertisements in four New York newspapers on Monday. The ads read: 'Our season wasn't exactly one to remember . . . But what we won't soon forget is all of you who came to Shea (Stadium), despite our many injuries, despite the economy, despite even the bad weather . . . So thank you Mets fans and thank you New York. Spring training is only four months away.'

(Photograph omitted)