By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Twenty-six years ago today, Tom Henke registered his 300th major league save when he secured the final four outs for the St. Louis Cardinals in their 4-3 win over the Atlanta Braves at Busch Stadium.
In a Canadian baseball fan’s perfect world, Henke would’ve reached that milestone with the Toronto Blue Jays – the team with whom he’s considered the greatest closer in franchise history.
With his 300th save, The Terminator became just the seventh big leaguer to reach that number, joining Lee Smith, Bruce Sutter, Jeff Reardon, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage and Dennis Eckersley.
Henke had to work for that milestone save. Facing the eventual World Series champion Braves, he uncharacteristically walked three batters and allowed a run, but he regrouped to strike out Chipper Jones for the second out of the ninth and then retired Fred McGriff on a fly out to end the game.
Most of Henke’s saves went smoother than that. Longtime Blue Jays fans will attest to this. The hard-throwing right-hander registered a franchise record 217 saves for the Blue Jays between 1985 and 1992, setting a bar for Blue Jays’ closers that has never been matched. For his efforts, he was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2011.
That’s an impressive resume for a pitcher that came to Toronto as a little talked-about compensation pick from the Texas Rangers on January 24, 1985 after the Rangers had signed Cliff Johnson as a free agent.
Just how little of a buzz did the acquisition of Henke generate at the time?
Well, the majority of the stories about the 1985 compensation draft carried in Canadian newspapers that I could find focus on the fact that the Montreal Expos lost shortstop Argenis (Angel) Salazar to the Cardinals. Salazar had hit .166 in 116 games for the Expos.
But the Blue Jays’ selection of Henke once again showed the genius of general manager Pat Gillick. The 6-foot-5 Henke, who had just turned 27, was coming off a season with the Rangers in which he posted a 6.35 ERA and walked 20 batters in 28 1/3 innings. Gillick, however, liked Henke’s raw talent.
“There were a lot of people available . . . there were 1,500 players around,” Gillick told the Associated Press at the time. “But what we wanted was someone to help in our bullpen so we went after Henke.”
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Gillick couldn’t have asked for better “help” for his bullpen. Henke would toe the rubber for parts of eight seasons for the Blue Jays, striking out 644 in 563 innings (an average of 10.3 per nine innings) and posting a 2.48 ERA to go along with his franchise record 217 saves. His best season was 1987, when he was named to the All-Star team and topped the American League with 34 saves.
So on the 26th anniversary of Henke’s 300th big league save, let’s take a look back at some of his most notable saves:
First major league save – August 20, 1983
Henke’s first save was a three-inning effort against the Chicago White Sox in the Rangers’ 6-1 win at Arlington Stadium. After Rangers starter Dave Stewart limited the Sox to one run on three hits in six innings, Henke came on to toss three scoreless frames to preserve the victory. He struck out three batters, including Hall of Famer Harold Baines in the ninth.
First save with the Blue Jays – August 2, 1985
After Bill Caudill had struggled in the closer’s role in 1985, Henke, who had been nearly unhittable with triple-A Syracuse, was recalled. After hurling a combined four scoreless innings and earning two wins in relief in his first two outings with the Blue Jays, Henke notched his first save with the club on August 2, 1985 when he threw a scoreless, three-up, three-down ninth inning in relief of starter Doyle Alexander in the Blue Jays’ 5-3 win over the Rangers at Exhibition Stadium.
100th major league save – August 12, 1988
Henke was called into the game with one out and runners on first and second in the bottom of the ninth inning at Royals Stadium with the Blue Jays leading 3-0. He allowed a single to Royals first baseman Bill Buckner to load the bases and then struck out Jim Eisenreich before Jamie Quirk grounded a two-run single to right field to make the score 3-2. Henke then buckled down to strike out Kurt Stillwell for the final out.
1989 American East division-clinching save – September 30, 1989
The Blue Jays started the 1989 season with a 12-24 record under manager Jimy Williams before he was fired and replaced by Cito Gaston. The Blue Jays rallied to win 77 games under Gaston and found themselves in a battle with the Baltimore Orioles for the division title on the season’s final weekend. The Blue Jays came into their game against the O’s at SkyDome on September 30, 1989 two games up with two games remaining. Left-hander Jimmy Key got the start for the Blue Jays but allowed three runs in four innings, before he was replaced by right-hander Frank Wills who tossed four scoreless innings. The Blue Jays had trailed 3-1 heading into the bottom of the eighth when they rallied for three runs to take a 4-3 lead. Gaston then handed the ball to Henke for the ninth and the closer got the O’s in order, clinching the division by striking out O’s pinch-hitter Larry Sheets for the final out.
200th major league save – July 4, 1992
Henke became just the 13th pitcher to record 200 major league saves when he secured an 8-6 Blue Jays’ victory over the Angels at SkyDome on July 4, 1992. Henke tossed a scoreless ninth inning in which he struck out Angels batters Rene Gonzales and Jose Gonzalez.
First postseason save as a Blue Jay – October 8, 1992
It’s difficult to pick one postseason save to highlight for Henke. After all, he had five of them in 1992, including three in the American League Championship Series against the Oakland A’s and two more in the World Series versus the Braves. But his first postseason save for the Blue Jays came in Game 2 of the ALCS when he was summoned from the pen after starter David Cone, who after eight strong innings, had allowed a leadoff triple to Ruben Sierra in the ninth. Henke proceeded to record the final three outs to save a 3-1 Blue Jays’ win to even the series with the A’s. In that inning, Henke got Mark McGwire to fly out to right field, he struck out Terry Steinbach and he got Willie Wilson to ground to shortstop.
Final major league save – September 30, 1995
It was a fitting final major league appearance for Henke. With the Pittsburgh Pirates threatening with runners on second and third in the top of the ninth at Busch Stadium, he was called in to get the last out for the Cardinals. Henke proceeded to strike out Pirates slugger Kevin Young for the final out to secure a 5-1 win for the Cards. That save also clinched Henke the National League Rolaids Relief Award for that season.
Thanks for the great blog on Tom. Never crossed my mind that he had 300 saves.
Thanks for your support and for reading.
Such a great career. He could have kept pitching as he had maybe his best season ever his last season. As good of a pitcher as he was, he is even a better person.
I totally agree, Scott. His numbers compare very favourably with Bruce Sutter and Lee Smith who have plaques in Cooperstown.