TORONTO -- Now, we're going to find out what the Toronto Blue Jays are made of. Bill Madlock made sure of that on Thursday night when he went out of the base line to flip Tony Fernandez upside down with a head-first, roll-block slide that sent the all-star shortstop into surgery for a dislocated fracture of the olecranon bone in his elbow.

Most Blue Jays think Madlock's takeout slide was, as Nelson Liriano said, "a dirty play." Most Detroit Tigers think it was hard-nosed, pennant-race baseball. Madlock said, when asked if he would phone Fernandez in the hospital, "Why should I? I'm not the Welcome Wagon."

Most neutral viewers, with the aid of replays, think the play was gray. Not dirty. Not clean, either. Madlock bent the rules to try to blast Fernandez and he got him. But his toe came within a few inches of the base. The umpires didn't call interference. And Madlock put his own neck at equal risk, throwing his face into Fernandez's knees.

Still, relative guilt aside, the injury raises a vivid question and sets the stage for a dramatic last act to the American League East season. Now, how will the Blue Jays, probably the most talented team in baseball, respond in the next 10 days? That is what the whole sport wants to know.

They have a 2 1/2-game lead. They have five more head-to-head games with Detroit. And, in Jimmy Key, John Cerrutti and Mike Flanagan, they have exactly the sort of southpaw pitching that has neutralized the Tigers (19-29) all season.

Even without Fernandez, the Blue Jays have it in them to get revenge. That is, if they have it in them. Which is exactly the question that's dogged this gifted team throughout the '80s.

Very few baseball lifers outside Toronto have much faith in the Blue Jays under pressure. "If we can just stay close to 'em, they'll self-destruct at the end," said one New York coach in July before the Yankees self-destructed.

Much is expected of the Blue Jays because it's hard to see what they lack. Their five-man rotation is the best in baseball in this year of horrid hurling. So is their deep bullpen. And that was before the hard-throwing lefty David Wells arrived.

The Blue Jays also have the third-best offense in the league, plus speed and defense. They don't miss being an all-star team by much. Yet the whisper about the Blue Jays is that they lack team cohesion and, under pressure, will play as disconnected, nervous individuals.

"I was surprised at how loose this clubhouse was when I came over here," said Flanagan. "They're not what I thought they'd be . . . I think they still have a bad rap because of the way they lost the {'85} playoffs to Kansas City after being ahead, three games to one."

Because the Blue Jays are housed in a quiet, polite Canadian town, their image tends to be constructed on limited information. First impressions become fixed truths. Take George Bell. Please.

"People say, 'Oh, the Blue Jays. They have that George Bell, the guy who karate-kicked the pitcher. They must not have a close-knit team with him in the clubhouse,' " says catcher Ernie Whitt. "Well, that's wrong. George is a good teammate."

The Blue Jays suffer from other image problems that aren't their fault.

Toronto starts five blacks and two Latins. Could an ingrained racism cause the talk about the Blue Jays' lack of chemistry? Said Flanagan: "Might be some of that."

Finally, there's the problem of Manager Jimy Williams. The man spells his name wrong. He was little known before he took the job in 1986. He walks to the mound funny. And he rips the old-fashioned "book" of percentages to shreds. He may even think for himself.

He's brought in left-handers to face right-handers. He's batted Willie Upshaw ninth and stunned Dave Steib with a bullpen demotion. Star Jesse Barfield sits against certain righties. He's benched Garth Iorg for a rookie, Liriano. He backed the Flanagan trade when nobody wanted him.

The Blue Jays take it. Bask in it. And will probably win 100 games.

The best thing in baseball is when the best two teams in the game aren't in different leagues, or even in different divisions, but in each others' back yards, face to face, all season. When those clubs come to the wire, separated by an eyelash, then have to meet each other seven times in the final fortnight -- well, you can have the playoffs and the Series. True pennant race games are as good as it gets.

That's exactly where we are now.

Who will emerge? Four AL East managers publicly picked the Tigers before this series began. That was when the Blue Jays' best all-around player, Fernandez, was still healthy. How do you replace a .322 hitter who has 152 runs produced, 32 steals and a Gold Glove?

Of course you don't. But, in the Blue Jays' case, you might, for a short time, acquire something almost as valuable. Many have said that this team only lacks fire and focus -- a cause to fight for, a banner to fly over its dugout. After all, it's hard to engage the emotions in a home park where the fans still cheer tentatively, as though worried about minding their manners.

The Blue Jays have their flag to show, their enemy to hate, their reason to band together and pretend that, despite all their gifts, they are underdogs with nothing to lose and plenty of hell to raise. Bill Madlock unwittingly gave all this to them.

"We'll go out and try to win it for Tony now. We'll play harder," said Lloyd Moseby Friday night after the Blue Jays had stunned the Tigers with three runs in the bottom of the ninth for a 3-2 victory. "It's going to wake us up."

If the Toronto Blue Jays, with Manny Lee at shortstop, end up winning the pennant, they ought to send the Tiger known as Mad Dog a full World Series share.