Last Sunday (August 29) the Blue Jays honoured Dave Stieb on the 20th anniversary of his no-hitter. In a pre-game ceremony, Stieb was presented with a painting, and a video tribute by many past teammates and club officials. Four of his former teammates were present at the ceremony to honour him, including Duane Ward.
With a lot of talk this season about Kevin Gregg having a career year as Toronto’s closer, despite constantly (or so it seems) getting into trouble in save situations, it makes a fan long for the days of bullpen dominance. For me, those days happened when Duane Ward was in the pen.
Ward was a top prospect back in 1982, drafted 9th overall by the Atlanta Braves. He made his major league debut for the Braves in 1986, but after only 16 innings pitched, Atlanta shipped him to the Jays straight up for Doyle Alexander. For Jays fans who were too young (like myself) to remember, Alexander was a big deal for the Jays. In two full seasons, and parts of two others, he went 46-26 with a 3.56 ERA for Toronto, leading them to their first division title in 1985. So letting him go was a big deal.
But it paid off – big time. Ward became a full-time member of the Blue Jay bullpen in 1988 and was dominant. He was used primarily as a set-up man to the Terminator Tom Henke, giving the Jays the best bullpen finishers in baseball. He was so dominating that after the Jays won the 1992 World Series they decided not to re-sign Henke, giving the full-time closers gig to Duane.
Ward was a workhorse. In a day and age where pitchers are treated very carefully, where relievers rarely throw more than two innings in a game, or more than two games in a row, Ward’s numbers seem absurd. From 1988 – 1992, he exceeded 100 innings pitched each year, hitting 127.2 in ’90. Crazy.
His stats are also off-the-charts. In that same time frame, as a set-up man, he went 49-51, with a 3.09 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 560 K’s, and 76 saves. 76 saves – as a set-up man!
Absolutely nothing changed in 1993 when he took over the role of closer. He lead the American League with 45 saves. His ERA was 2.13, his WHIP 1.03. He struck out 97 batters in only 71.2 innings. He was named an All-Star, finished 5th in Cy Young voting, and 22nd in MVP voting. I will not hesitate to call him Toronto’s last true dominant closer. The pot-pourri of arms we have had for the ninth inning over the past 15 years (Ryan, Koch, Frasor, Accardo, Timlin, Escobar) are nothing compared to Ward.
Unfortunately his dominance only lasted one year. Biceps tendinitis forced him to miss the entire 1994 season, and caused his retirement after only four games in 1995. He was only 31 when he hung up the cleats.
But his time with the Jays will never be forgotten. The fire engine red moustache, the smoking fastballs, the fist pump when he nailed down a save, and his huge role in the back-to-back to World Series years will always be a part of Toronto lore. Godspeed Duane, godspeed.
Duane Ward: Career Major League Statistics
9 seasons (1986 – 1993, 1995)
2 teams (ATL, TOR)
32-37 record, 666.2 IP, 3.28 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 679 K:286 BB
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