November 1, 2023
By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Who has been the Toronto Blue Jays’ best starting pitcher in the postseason?
It’s not Dave Stieb or Jimmy Key, or even Jack Morris, who was signed specifically for his outstanding postseason track record.
And younger Blue Jays fans might say it’s Marco Estrada.
But the correct answer would be Juan Guzman.
In five American League Championship Series starts for the Blue Jays from 1991 to 1993, he went 5-0 with a 2.27 ERA. He also posted a 2.70 ERA in three World Series starts.
“Juan never let the situation overwhelm him,” said Rance Mulliniks, who played with Guzman on the Blue Jays’ 1991 and 1992 postseason teams. “He just went about his business and prepared . . . He was always very easygoing and he didn’t show much emotion – at least outwardly. I think he had an excellent perspective about things . . . And when it counted the most, he came up big and he pitched some great baseball games.”
The Blue Jays were fortunate to land Guzman in a deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers on September 22, 1987 in exchange for infielder Mike Sharperson.
Born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic in 1966, Guzman was signed by Dodgers scout Ralph Avila in March 1985. With the Dodgers, Guzman exhibited a lively arm as a starter, racking up 113 strikeouts in 110 innings for class-A Bakersfield in 1987, but he also walked 84 batters.
After the Blue Jays acquired him, Guzman was initially converted into a reliever and his wildness worsened. In 1989, he walked 90 batters in 68 innings between Double-A and Triple-A.
“The first memory I have of Juan was in the spring training after the Blue Jays had acquired him,” said Mulliniks. “My hitting group drew him over at the minor league camp. This was in the first eight or nine days of spring training and he was to throw to our group. And he threw extremely hard and was incredibly wild.
“At that point, I was well along in my career and I stepped in the cage and went through the process of just getting through that first round facing him. And then I walked out of the batting cage and I said to Cito, ‘Cito, I’m done. If someone else wants to come in and take my place, they can go ahead. I’m going to grab my glove and take some ground balls at third because I’m getting too far along in my career to get hit by pitches from this guy.’”
Guzman returned to double-A Knoxville in 1990 and was used more frequently as a starter, registering an 11-9 record with a 4.24 ERA in 37 appearances (21 starts). One of the keys to his improvement in 1990 was his development of a late-breaking slider. It was a pitch he’d eventually perfect and in 1991, after posting a 4.03 ERA in 12 appearances (11 starts) in Triple-A, he was called up by the Blue Jays.
After losing his first two big league starts, Guzman reeled off wins in 10 consecutive decisions. Most importantly, he notched five wins in September and early October to help the Blue Jays capture their third division title.
“He had great stuff. His fastball was electric,” said Mulliniks. “It had late movement and when he could command it, he had a slider that was almost unhittable as well.”
In the American League Championship Series against the Minnesota Twins that year, Guzman started Game 2 and allowed just two earned runs on four hits in 5 2/3 innings to lead the Blue Jays to their only victory in the series.
Guzman returned to the Blue Jays’ rotation in 1992 and enjoyed his most successful campaign, finishing with a 16-5 record and a 2.64 ERA. His performance earned him his first and only All-Star Game selection.
“I used to say if Juan can half way throw to where he wants to during a start, the other team doesn’t have much of a chance,” said Mulliniks. “He had overpowering stuff.”
Guzman also secured two wins for the Blue Jays in the ALCS against the A’s, including in Game 6 when the Blue Jays clinched their first American League pennant.
His postseason success continued in the Fall Classic when he permitted just one run in eight innings in Game 3 in a contest the Blue Jays eventually won 3-2 over the Atlanta Braves.
Guzman was again a key member of the Blue Jays’ rotation in 1993, completing the campaign with a 14-3 record. Manager Cito Gaston gave him the nod to start Game 1 of the ALCS against the Chicago White Sox and he responded by hurling six strong innings to earn the win. He picked up another victory in Game 5 of the series and then registered a 3.75 ERA in two World Series starts to help the Blue Jays to their second consecutive championship.
In 1994, Guzman was the Blue Jays’ Opening Day starter but he struggled to a 5.68 ERA in 25 starts. The ensuing campaign was even worse. He finished with a 4-14 record and a 6.32 ERA. Determined to rebound, he pitched in winter ball following that season and came back in 1996 to register an American League-leading 2.93 ERA in 27 starts.
But the injury bug would bite him in 1997. A broken thumb and a shoulder strain limited him to just 13 starts. Guzman then had a poor start to the 1998 season but was rediscovering his form when the Blue Jays dealt him to the Baltimore Orioles at the July 31 trade deadline.
He would have stints with the Orioles, Cincinnati Reds and Tampa Bay Rays at the end of his playing career.
In all, in parts of 10 major league seasons, he finished with a 91-79 record in 240 starts and a 4.08 ERA. Among Blue Jays pitchers, Guzman ranks in the top 10 in several all-time regular season statistical categories, including fourth in strikeouts (1,030), sixth in WAR (21) and innings pitched (1,215 2/3) and seventh in wins (76).
Not surprisingly, he also ranks first among Blue Jays pitchers in postseason wins (5), starts (8), innings pitched (51 2/3) and strikeouts (41).
And in the process, he cemented his status as the greatest postseason pitcher in franchise history.