The thing is, it's not always the aces who make the difference down the stretch. For example, in 2011, we saw Doug Fister take charge for the Tigers, posting a 0.53 ERA in September while helping them win the AL Central.
Here are five starters who aren't household names but could be this year's version of Fister and step to the forefront down the stretch:
Brett Anderson, LHP Oakland Athletics
The Athletics didn’t know what to expect when they reinstated Anderson from the disabled list in August after more than a year of rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery. However, Anderson has quickly become the top-of-the-rotation starter his potential had always hinted of prior to his injury. His mid-90s fastball and unhittable breaking ball have been dominant, and he has 1.93 ERA in his five starts. He’s given the A’s a chance to not only make the playoffs but keep them alive in the race for the AL West title and remain a serious World Series threat.
Hughes went 18-8 with a 4.19 ERA in 2010 before struggling with health issues last year, going a disappointing 5-5 with a 5.79 ERA. This year, however, Hughes has had an impressive bounce-back season, posting a 3.96 ERA and a strikeouts-to-walk ratio of 3.70, which is a career high. But he’s really stepped it up the last month, allowing just 10 runs in his last 39 1/3 innings, right when the Yankees needed him most. His 91-93 mph four-seamer at the top of the strike zone is getting swings and misses, and his curveball is back and has regained its nastiness coming out of the arm same slot as the four-seam fastball. He gets hit and gives up home runs when he tires and can’t command his four-seamer in the zone, so it’s important that manager Joe Girardi takes him out before that happens. But Hughes should continue to provide a solid six innings per start for the remainder of the season and the postseason.
Most people are so impressed with the Phillies' trio of aces in Halladay, Hamels and Lee that they fail to realize how good Kendrick has become since moving from the bullpen into the rotation. He can be a real separator in his final three starts as the Phillies try to make an improbable comeback and earn the second NL wild-card berth. He’s lasted six innings or more in seven of his last 10 starts and allowed more than two earned runs just twice in those 10 starts. He had a hiccup on Saturday against the Astros, but if he can pitch like he did in his six starts prior, the Phillies might be able to pull off a miracle.
Like the Phillies, the Brewers weren’t supposed to jump back in the wild-card race. But because of a revitalized bullpen, a rebounding offense led by Rickie Weeks and strong starting pitching, the Brewers are relevant again in mid-September. Estrada, 26, has led the way by posting a 1.92 ERA with 38 K's in his last five starts. His fastball has much better downward plane, and he’s making significantly fewer mistakes in the middle of the plate.
Chen, who signed for $11 million over three years last winter, was one of the best bargains of the offseason and a big reason GM Dan Duquette is a serious contender for executive of the year. The southpaw pitches backwards -- meaning he uses his offspeed stuff to set up his fastball -- but owns the black on both sides of the plate with late movement and really knows how to add and take off velocity on all his pitches. He’s pitched very well against A's and Rays this year, posting a 0.71 and 3.38 ERA respectively against the O's main wild-card competition.