Key players for playoff contenders
September, 25, 2012
By Buster Olney | ESPN Insider
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireFor the Rangers to reach a third straight World Series, Yu Darvish needs to pitch like an ace.Scouts are scattered all over ballparks these days, preparing for the postseason, looking for weaknesses, forming opinions on which hitters to avoid and which hitters to go after.
Each of the playoff teams will have particular players who will be barometers for their club's performance -- linchpin guys.
Here are those players, among the teams that would qualify for the postseason as of this morning.
Texas Rangers, Yu Darvish: A month ago, their rotation looked to be a real concern in the postseason, but Darvish has turned it around in recent weeks; he's got 42 strikeouts in his last 37 innings, with a 1.46 ERA. Texas will need more of the same next month.
Atlanta Braves, Michael Bourn: Atlanta's offense is inconsistent, and all year it seems that when Bourn hits, the Braves are transformed. October is all about small samples, and in recent days, Bourn has hit better, with four hits in his last 11 at-bats, plus a couple of walks.
Oakland Athletics, Yoenis Cespedes: He is capable of doing damage against any pitcher in any situation, and the cause-and-effect with him has been in place all season. When he plays well, the Athletics tend to win.
Baltimore Orioles, Wei-Yin Chen: At last check, Baltimore was competing with a seven-man rotation. But in the postseason, the Orioles will need Chen -- the only pitcher with more than 20 starts on their roster -- to be able to hang in there at least into the sixth or seventh inning. The Orioles' bullpen has been remarkable, but it's hard to imagine Baltimore succeeding in October without a significant contribution from the starters, whoever they are.
Cincinnati Reds, Brandon Phillips: The Reds have a team fully capable of success in the postseason, with a good rotation, a dominant bullpen and an outstanding defense. Their greatest inconsistency has been at the top of the lineup, and it helps that Phillips has moved into the leadoff spot now that Joey Votto is back in the No. 3 spot. Votto is not hitting for power at all these days, but if Phillips and Zack Cozart tee him up by getting on base, the Reds' production will be very different. Phillips in the leadoff spot this year: a .275 on-base percentage.
New York Yankees, Alex Rodriguez: He is a crucial part of their lineup, especially with so much uncertainty about Mark Teixeira's status, because Rodriguez will be the guy attacked by opposing pitchers and managers as they look to steer around Robinson Cano; Rodriguez is going to get a lot of chances. He is hitting .268 this month, and while he's been getting his share of hits, he doesn't have an extra-base hit in his last nine games.
Chicago White Sox, Chris Sale: The big question everybody will be wondering about him -- especially because he is being stressed far beyond anything he's ever experienced -- is how much he has left in the tank. The White Sox wouldn't be leading the AL Central without Sale, and they can't win in the playoffs without him.
Washington Nationals, Tyler Clippard: He is not a "stuff" closer with the overpowering fastball of a Craig Kimbrel or Aroldis Chapman. Rather, Clippard relies on his changeup, and it's worked for him, generally; he's got 32 saves this season. But Clippard's numbers have done down in the second half -- he has 5.74 ERA since the break, after posting a 1.93 ERA before the break. Washington doesn't have as much depth in its bullpen as some of the other teams, and no matter how Davey Johnson uses Clippard, the Nationals need production from him.
St. Louis Cardinals, Chris Carpenter: He's a difference-maker. He showed it last fall in the decisive game against the Philadelphia Phillies and in the last game of the World Series. Carpenter had good movement on his sinker in his first start last week, and if he can continue to pitch effectively, the St. Louis rotation looks very, very different.
San Francisco Giants, Pablo Sandoval: He's been hitting with some power in the last week, and given that other teams will make a strong effort to make sure that Buster Posey doesn't beat them, Sandoval is going to get pitches to hit. The Panda is hitting .312 this month.
• Kansas City Royals owner David Glass says he'll spend to get pitching this winter. If you are Kyle Lohse or Edwin Jackson or any of the other second-tier free agents, this is a really good thing.
• The White Sox were only four outs from losing sole possession of first place, until Adam Dunn took another massive swing at an 0-2 pitch and clubbed a three-run homer.
From ESPN Stats & Information: Dunn saw 17 pitches Monday, and all were fastballs. It's just the third time in the last four seasons he came to bat four times and didn't see a single non-fastball. Monday's homers gave him 32 this season off fastballs (2/4-seam, sinkers, cutters), five more than anyone else in baseball.
Most HR on fastballs this season in MLB
Adam Dunn: 32
Miguel Cabrera: 27
Curtis Granderson: 26
Most go-ahead HR in eighth inning or later (since '01)
Adam Dunn: 26
Albert Pujols: 24
David Ortiz: 22
Dunn and Robin Ventura said that the White Sox need to relax. The White Sox didn't give in, writes Rick Morrissey.
Before Dunn's home run, the Detroit Tigers appeared poised to move into a first-place tie after Justin Verlander's strong effort.
Justin Verlander vs. Royals on Monday (strikes/pitches)
-- 78 percent strikes overall (career high)
Drew Sharp likes this pennant race.
From Elias Sports Bureau: With Miguel Cabrera leading the AL in average and RBIs, this is the fourth-latest date a player has led in two of the Triple Crown three categories since Carl Yastrzemski win in 1967.
With 42 home runs, 133 RBIs and a .331 BA, Cabrera has a decent shot at reaching 45 home runs and 140 RBIs while hitting .330. Should he reach those numbers, he would join a pretty exclusive list that includes Babe Ruth (six times), Lou Gehrig (four times), Jimmie Foxx (three times), Joe DiMaggio (once), Todd Helton (once) and Hack Wilson (once).
• The Rangers roared back from a deficit against Oakland, with a lot of work from Adrian Beltre.
From Elias: Beltre is the first major league player this season to produce a walk-off RBI in a nine-inning game after recording a lead-changing RBI in the seventh inning or later in the same game.
Beltre's game-tying homer came off a 83 mph slider left up in the zone from Pat Neshek. Beltre told ESPNDallas he was looking for a slider, because he'd been thrown nothing but sliders -- and he's hit a lot of sliders this season, too. Beltre leads MLB with 10 homers on sliders this season. Robinson Cano is second with nine.
Josh Hamilton was back in the Texas lineup after saying he will reduce the amount of caffeine he drinks.
The Athletics are nearing the end of what has been a brutal stretch of schedule, with 17 of 20 games on the road. They couldn't hold the lead against Texas, as Susan Slusser writes. Coco Crisp's pinkeye is not getting better.
After Oakland finishes this series against Texas, it has two home series remaining, against Seattle and then the Rangers.
• Heath Bell ripped Ozzie Guillen, who has other support in the clubhouse, writes Clark Spencer. Odds of Guillen refraining from a response: zero.
Jeffrey Loria was irked by something a former manager said.
• Andy Pettitte looked terrific again. When the pressure is on, Pettitte responds, writes Joel Sherman.
From ESPN Stats & Info, how Pettitte beat the Twins:
A) Pettitte threw a season-high 57 percent fastballs (2/4-seam). Two of his three strikeouts came on those fastballs; he had only six fastball strikeouts in his first 10 starts this season.
B) Pettitte recorded a season-high 15 of his 17 outs on pitches in the zone, including two double plays.
C) Twins hitters swung at only 11 of Pettitte's 22 sliders, but put the ball in play on eight of those swings (73 percent), his highest percentage in the last four seasons. Those eight swings resulted in seven outs, including four on the ground.
• The Orioles split a doubleheader, and they've fallen to 1.5 games behind the Yankees. Steve Johnson made the most of his spot start.
• Henderson Alvarez needs to get better for the Toronto Blue Jays, writes Ken Fidlin.
• Luke Hochevar couldn't match Verlander's outing.
• The Indians' best bullpen guy was beaten.
• A Twins rookie was hit hard.
• The Nationals' magic number for clinching the NL East is down to five. Davey Johnson says he's going to rest his guys down the stretch. From Adam Kilgore's tory:
- The Nationals could clinch at the start of, or before, their series with the Cardinals this upcoming weekend. The Cardinals may be fending off pursuers for the second wild-card spot. Johnson defiantly said he would not worry about how resting his starters would impact the race.