PITTSBURGH - The reeling Toronto Blue Jays are hoping the man who led the team to a pair of World Series titles in the early '90s can save a season of high expectations from slipping away to disaster.
The Jays fired manager John Gibbons on Friday and, in a surprising move, replaced him with former manager Cito Gaston.

The move comes amid a spirit-breaking stretch of 13 losses in 17 games that has buried them in the AL East basement with a 35-39 record.

"We're going to see if we can't start the season over tonight," Gaston told a news conference. "I think we have the hitters to do that and give the pitching staff some breathing room."

Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi said Gaston will manage the rest of the season and then be evaluated.

Gibbons is the third manager fired this week, after Willie Randolph (Mets) and John McLaren (Seattle).

"You never really anticipate it, there's always that possibility," Gibbons said during a conference call. "We were struggling, there's no question about that. Hopefully change is good. I'm still a big fan of these guys and I want to see them succeed."

The Jays also fired coaches Marty Pevey, Ernie Whitt and Gary Denbo.

The 64-year-old Gaston becomes the Blue Jays' first two-time manager. He previously managed the team from 1989 to 1997, leading the team to World Series championships in 1992 and 1993.

"From our standpoint we've underachieved," said Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi. "We know we have a better team than this. Right now we want to see if we can spark this team and we think Cito is the guy to do it."

Gaston, who has been special assistant to the president and CEO, had a 681-635 record as manager during his earlier stint. He was fired with a week to go in the 1997 season.

Joining his staff will be first base coach Dwayne Murphy, third base coach Nick Leyva and hitting coach Gene Tenace.

"They're my guys," Gaston said, referring to Leyva and Tenace, with whom he talked regularly even while not managing.

This week's three-game sweep at the hands of the Milwaukee Brewers was the final straw, as it came on the heels of a devastating 3-6 homestand. Initially, according to a source, the team was inclined to give Gibbons through the end of the month before making a decision, but the continued losing forced their hand.

Gibbons entered the season on perilous ground, with his US$650,000, one-year contract due to expire at the end of the year. He found himself in hot water after an 11-17 April but the Blue Jays got back on track, and then some, during a 20-10 May.

Then three hard-to-swallow losses at the beginning of June -- a 4-3 loss June 1 at Anaheim on a blown B.J. Ryan save; a 9-8 defeat June 5 at Yankee Stadium on Jason Giambi's walkoff homer off an 0-2 Ryan pitch; and a 6-5 loss June 6 at home to Baltimore when the bullpen blew a 4-0 lead in the eighth -- killed their mojo and it's been a struggle for them ever since.

Gaston blames the Blue Jays' problems on their hitting -- they went into Friday night's game 10th in the AL with a .258 batting average and next to last with 49 homers in 74 games -- but said there is enough talent on the club that, "I get goose bumps when I look at that lineup. It's not happening now. I think we can do that, we've got the hitters here."

Gibbons couldn't get the hitters going, as a result, there was too much burden placed on the pitching staff to carry the club.

"We tried different things, different batting orders, to see if something clicked, and there just wasn't any real consistency," Gibbons said. "We had our ups and downs, the problem is it was more downs this year."

To turn that around, Gaston promises to be the same manager he was in 1997.

"I'm going to try to be as I was before, a couple of innings ahead of what I want to do," Gaston said. "I don't think the game has changed."

The decision to fire Gibbons was not an easy one for Ricciardi, who called Gibbons in the morning and told him at a meeting. Ricciardi roomed with Gibbons when both were prospects in the New York Mets system during the early 1980s and have been friends since.

Gibbons certainly bears no fault for his lineup's inability to produce at the plate. He pushed the cause of some players to employ a more aggressive style of ball, giving more runners the green light to steal bases and using the hit and run more often.

But at the end of the day, a lineup featuring too many spare parts isn't delivering timely, big hits and the losses piled up because of it.

Gibbons, a laid-back, back-slapping Texan who could lay down the law when necessary, was a players' manager who mostly tried to stay out of his team's way.

He was routinely criticized by fans, who vented their frustration at an easy target. But he's an astute baseball man savvy enough to keep his clubhouse content and the executive staff above him placated.

"A lot of good things happened while I was in Toronto, but nothing really great and by great I mean post-season and that's what the organization was looking for," said Gibbons.

"You deal with that and life goes on, baseball goes on. I got a family, heck it isn't the worst thing to spend a couple of months with my kids."

Since taking over from the fired Carlos Tosca on an interim basis Aug. 8, 2004, Gibbons compiled a 305-305 record. Only his replacement Gaston (683-636) and Bobby Cox (355-292) have had longer tenures than him in franchise history.

Fans will most likely remember Gibbons for a pair of incidents with Shea Hillenbrand and Ted Lilly during the 2006 season.

Gibbons challenged Hillenbrand to a fight in the clubhouse after the disgruntled infielder left mutinous scribbles on a clubhouse whiteboard that July. In August, Gibbons and Lilly had a physical altercation in the dugout tunnel following an argument on the mound.

Neither incident seemed to harm him much in the eyes of his players, with both ace Roy Halladay and centre-fielder Vernon Wells offering crucial endorsements of him at the time.

The Blue Jays' best season under Gibbons was 2006, when they finished second in the AL East at 87-75.