Thursday, October 3, 2013
Eight make-or-break players in the LDS
By Jim Bowden
Other pitchers might have better stuff, but nobody competes harder than Jake Peavy.
This October, most of the ink will be used on the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Miguel Cabrera and Dustin Pedroia, but it's nondescript, under-the-radar players who write history in the postseason. Winning championships isn’t about stars; it’s about players who step up at a critical time.
This type of player or pitcher can play a key role in any team’s postseason success. So here is one player from each LDS club who might not be his team’s best player but will prove crucial to his team’s aspirations to advance deep into the postseason.
At several points in the 2013 season, Red Sox Game 1 starter Jon Lester looked like a true ace. With Lester and Clay Buchholz, the Red Sox had a one-two punch that could pitch with anyone in baseball, including the Tigers’ pair of Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander. In the playoffs, John Lackey will follow Lester, then Buchholz.
However, the key for the Red Sox will be Game 4 starter Peavy, who was acquired midseason in a three-way deal that sent shortstop Jose Iglesias to the Tigers. Peavy won the Cy Young Award back in 2007, but he has been named to only one All-Star team since. This season, he finished 12-5 with a 4.17 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP. He could be matched up this postseason against pitchers such as Detroit’s Anibal Sanchez, Oakland’s Jarrod Parker or maybe even Tampa Bay’s David Price. All three have better stuff than Peavy. However, Peavy’s competitiveness and makeup are off the charts, and no one battles more fiercely than he does.
The Dodgers hoped Matt Kemp would bounce back and be the player he was in 2011, when he finished second in the league in MVP voting . Unfortunately, he played just 73 games in 2013, sitting on the DL with hamstring, shoulder and ankle injuries. Andre Ethier took over center field, but with Ethier now hampered by an ankle injury and Kemp out for the entire postseason, the Dodgers must instead turn to utility man Schumaker.
A lifetime .284 hitter, he has hit two or fewer home runs and stolen two or fewer two bases in each of the past three seasons. He’s not a good defensive center fielder but does make the plays he gets to. He does have three years of postseason experience, including 2011, when he went 6-for-10 in the NLDS for the Cardinals, scoring a run and driving in three. The Dodgers hope he can simply hold his own; anything more is gravy.
The Tigers have one of the best teams in baseball -- on paper. Their four-man rotation is the best in the AL. Joaquin Benoit has developed into an impact closer, as demonstrated by his 24 saves in 26 attempts. The team is strong up the middle defensively, and its deep lineup is led by Cabrera, the best power hitter on the planet.
However, the Tigers’ one weakness might be the setup relievers en route to Benoit. Bruce Rondon, Drew Smyly and Jose Veras certainly have the arms and stuff to get it done, but they have been inconsistent. If Tigers starters go deep into games, this potential weakness will never be an issue. However, with as much as another month of baseball possible, a lack of bullpen depth often gets exposed. That’s why a pitcher such as Alburquerque could be a crucial piece. His in-season numbers were mediocre, but he allowed only one hit and no runs in his last nine appearances of the regular season.
I have been saying since last season that it wouldn’t be long before Rosenthal took over as the Cardinals’ closer. Although Edward Mujica was converting save after save, I kept saying that, at some point, he would turn it over to Rosenthal and his 100 mph fastball. It took until Game 157 before Rosenthal finally got the chance to take over the closer’s role, and he did so in perfect fashion, converting all three opportunities on Sept. 23, 24 and 25 without giving up a hit and without walking a batter.
Even with so few save opportunities at the major league level, he’ll now be asked to close high-leverage postseason games without blinking an eye, and I think the 23-year-old is up for it.
Manager Bob Melvin told me last week that Crisp is the Athletics’ engine. His energy, leadership and all-out approach to the game make them go. He’s also the key to the A’s winning in October.
He has to get on base because, when he does, he creates fastballs for all the power hitters behind him. He’s also one of the most successful base stealers in A’s history, with a ridiculous success rate of 87 percent, better than even Rickey Henderson. Crisp also hit 12 home runs from Aug. 21 to the end of the season and belted four leadoff home runs in 2013. On defense, his speed in the gaps helps compensate for his weak arm.
The Braves haven’t won a playoff series since 2001, and the man who took over Chipper Jones’ locker this season could be the most crucial player for the Braves’ postseason. Manager Fredi Gonzalez’s decision to put Heyward in the leadoff spot this year was a difference-maker, as the team scored almost a run more per game when he led off. His slash line when leading off this season was .322/.403/.551 as compared with .226/.330/.385 when batting second and .238/.304/.286 when batting third.
He has found a home in the lineup. He also provides Gold Glove-caliber defense, which also will be a factor this postseason.
The Rays’ best pitcher in the second half of the season was not David Price, Matt Moore or Chris Archer, but Cobb. He was 5-1 with a 2.41 ERA, including 58 strikeouts in 59 2/3 innings pitched after the All-Star break.
His domination was on display in the AL wild-card game as he blanked the Cleveland Indians for 6 2/3 innings, giving up eight hits and striking out five. Cobb’s fastball sits in the low 90s, but his command is special. His changeup/curveball combination keeps hitters guessing as he pitches ahead by pounding the zone with first-pitch strikes. For the Rays to run the table, they will need Cobb to pitch the way he did to finish the season. His performance in the wild-card game was a good start.
The Pirates’ starting rotation has received many accolades this season, as well it should, considering how Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett, Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton have pitched. The bullpen is nicknamed the "Shark Tank" and also gets a lot of attention because of its dominance. Andrew McCutchen should be the NL MVP, and Pedro Alvarez was the NL’s best left-handed home run hitter. However, this October, it’s Marte who is the Pirates’ most underrated player on the team and could be their most crucial player. Bottom line: When he gets on base, the Pirates score runs.