This is the one the Kansas City Royals will think about all winter.
Three outs from tying the American League Championship Series tonight, the Royals allowed three ninth-inning runs. Al Oliver burned reliever Dan Quisenberry for the second time in three games and the Toronto Blue Jays escaped with a 3-1 victory before 41,112 in Royals Stadium.
Oliver's two-run double into the right field corner came moments after Lloyd Moseby had doubled in Damaso Garcia to tie the game at 1. Kansas City had nursed a 1-0 lead, created when Dave Stieb walked Hal McRae with the bases loaded in the sixth, into the final inning.
For the Royals, the defeat was crushing. It gives the Blue Jays a 3-1 lead in the series with a chance to win their first American League pennant here on Sunday afternoon (WRC-TV-4, 4:35 p.m.).
"We had a chance to break it open in the sixth and had it three outs from winning in the ninth," said Royals Manager Dick Howser. "But we didn't win. It's a tough one to take."
Tough to take because losing pitcher Charlie Leibrandt pitched eight gritty shutout innings and looked like a winner. Tough to take because on a night when the Royals could produce only two hits, they still could have evened the series at 2-2.
"I think we were a little down going into the ninth," Oliver said. "Leibrandt was throwing a spectacular game. I think we were swinging too hard at his stuff. But when Garcia walked on four pitches that was a good sign. Because he never walks."
In fact, Garcia walked only 15 times in 600 regular season at bats. But with the Blue Jays trailing, 1-0, entering the ninth, Garcia, leading off, was determined to show some discipline. "I was going to make him throw a strike," he said. "We needed a base runner."
Leibrandt never threw a strike. Up came Moseby. He looked to third base coach Jimy Williams, expecting the bunt sign. It wasn't there.
"If we had been tied, I might have bunted," Manager Bobby Cox said. "But down a run with Quisenberry in the bullpen, I didn't have much appetite for giving up an out."
Cox's thinking surprised Moseby. "I thought I'd be bunting," he said. "When I didn't see the bunt sign, it really gave me confidence in myself because Bobby had so much confidence in me. I just wanted to drive the ball somewhere."
He did just that, slamming a line-drive double into the gap in right-center. Garcia, running from the moment the ball was hit, scored easily. "I saw a lot of high-fives in the dugout," Moseby said. "I think the guys were relieved we finally got a run off Leibrandt."
They also got Leibrandt, who had thrown 118 pitches, out of the game. Howser went for Quisenberry, his ace, but also the losing pitcher in Game 2. George Bell blooped a single to center. Moseby, holding up to make sure the ball dropped, stopped at third.
Howser came back to the mound. He knew Oliver would pinch-hit for Cliff Johnson. He knew that Oliver had punched a single to left off Quisenberry to score the winning run in Toronto's 6-5 victory Wednesday. He knew that, like on Wednesday, the hitter after Oliver would be Jesse Barfield, who, like Quisenberry, is right-handed.
"I thought for a second about walking (Oliver), but not really," Howser said. "If we could have gotten a ground ball, we would have been in good shape. We really only talked about where to throw on a ground ball. Of course, we didn't get a ground ball."
Not even close. Quisenberry fell behind two balls with the infield in. "I had to throw a strike and I wanted to get him off-balance," he said. "I threw a change-up. I didn't get him off-balance and I didn't throw a good enough change-up. I was 0 for 2."
And 0 for 2 against Oliver. Sitting on the breaking pitch, Oliver hit his game-winning line drive. Moseby trotted home and Bell streaked in right behind him. It was 3-1.
"That may be the biggest hit of my career," said Oliver, who at 38 has 2,743 of them in regular-season play. "To come off the bench in that situation and get that kind of hit is a great feeling. I never thought he would walk me, I thought he would throw me a strike. Fortunately, he did."
Quisenberry got the next three men out, but the damage was done. This was a night when virtually all of the Royals' offense consisted of walks: Stieb contributed seven and Tom Henke, who earned his second victory of the series, added two more.
Willie Wilson got the Royals' only two hits. The first was an infield single in the third. The second was a line shot in the sixth that led to what looked like the winning run until the ninth.
"We got just two hits and we didn't really have an RBI," said Kansas City's George Brett. "It would have been amazing if we had won. But we came close enough that this is tough to take."
Brett had burned the Blue Jays Friday with four hits, including two home runs and a double. Cox and Stieb resolved that there would not be a repeat performance. That was apparent in the sixth, when Cox ordered Brett walked in a situation where every rule of baseball says you do not walk a man.
Brett came up with no out in the sixth. Lonnie Smith, who had walked, was on third. Wilson, who had singled, was on first. Even though walking Brett put a second runner in scoring position in a tie game, Cox ordered it.
"It worked out all right but I'm not so sure I would do it again," Cox said. "But after what Brett did last night, we had to consider it."
At first, the move appeared to have backfired. After getting ahead of Hal McRae 0-2, Stieb threw four straight balls to force in Smith. It was 1-0 and the bases were still loaded.
But Stieb toughened. Pat Sheridan popped up and Frank White hit a double-play grounder to shortstop. Willie Upshaw made a pretty scoop on Garcia's relay throw, and it remained 1-0.
"The point was we didn't let Brett hurt us," Stieb said. "I had confidence we would get the one run back. I'll walk him anytime when he's hot."
In the seventh, Stieb walked Buddy (.188) Biancalana with two down and then walked Smith on four pitches. Cox sent for Henke. As Stieb trotted off, the fans booed him. He responded by reaching below his belt, making an obscene gesture.
"Sure I meant it," Stieb said. "I think what the fans did was (expletive). I expect some respect. It was a well-pitched game on both sides and they should respect that. They pay their money, they can do what they want to. But so can I."
Henke retired Wilson on a fly to center. Leibrandt set Toronto down in the eighth and was one inning from being a hero.
"It was so close, three outs away," Leibrandt said. "I really thought we were going to win. Then I walked the leadoff man. That was tough to swallow. So is the loss."
Howser often says that getting the last three outs with a one-run lead is one of the toughest things to do in baseball. The Royals had the chance Wednesday and failed. They had the chance tonight and failed again.
"We could be leading 3-1 instead of trailing 3-1," Leibrandt said. That is a fact that he and his teammates will wince about all winter long.