10 MLB Players Who Will Shine Down the Home Stretch
The addition of a second wild card has made the push for 2012 MLB postseason even more exciting than in years past, and Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria leads a list of players who will perform well down the stretch to try to reach the playoffs.
Last season featured collapses by the Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox, so no lead is safe with two months to go. Several teams like the New York Yankees are in great position to make the postseason.
Those teams will still need big performances from players, and most of the key players are not the team's best players. The players range from veterans nearing the end of their careers to players picked up at the trade deadline to help a team make a postseason run.
While position players will have the biggest impact on a team, a dominant pitcher can lead the team to victories.
One player can carry a team down the stretch, although it helps when multiple players step up. These 10 players are not necessarily the best players on their team, but they are due for a big final two months.
Big performances by these players will have their teams in great position for October baseball.
*All stats are from ESPN.com as of 8/6/2012
Hanley Ramirez, Los Angeles Dodgers
In one of the biggest moves before the deadline, Hanley Ramirez went from Miami to Los Angeles and he now finds himself in the middle of a pennant race.
Before joining the Dodgers, he was hitting .246 and had only 48 RBI on the season. He was coming off a disappointing 2011 season, and he is still trying to get back to his 2010 form.
Ramirez, a former batting champion, needed a change of scenery. Although his batting average has gone down in 12 games since switching teams, his run production is up. With 11 RBI as a Dodger, the infielder has nearly one RBI per game.
He started his Dodgers career with a five-game hitting streak and a .333 average. Since the hot start, he has only three hits.
The team does not need him to carry the lineup because it has Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier. Both stars have dealt with injuries, so Ramirez may need to move around in the order depending on the circumstances.
Ramirez has the talent to catch fire and have a great end to the season. The pressure will not fall on him in Los Angeles, so he will lead the team into October.
Chipper Jones, Atlanta Braves
When he has been healthy this season, Chipper Jones has been very good at the plate. Injuries have spoiled his final season, but he will be motivated to play well down the stretch.
He told David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday that he will still retire at the end of the season despite playing so well in 2012.
The All-Star third baseman is having one of his best seasons in recent years. His .320 average has not been higher since 2008, and it has not been above .275 in any season during that time. He is on pace for the same power numbers as last season, but he is getting on base with more frequency this season.
Jones has dealt with multiple injuries this season, and it has cost him games. The 40-year-old is nearing the end of his career, so he will want to go out on top of his game.
The motivation of ending his career strong will lead to a great performance down the stretch, but last season's collapse will motivate him as well. As Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution summarizes the collapse, the team will look to finish the job this year.
A year after blowing an 8.5-game lead, the Braves are leading the wild card race. A healthy Jones will keep the team in the race the rest of the season.
Edwin Jackson, Washington Nationals
Edwin Jackson's 6-7 record is deceiving because he has the ability to be a very good pitcher.
He has only allowed more than three runs in two of his seven losses, so he is not pitching poorly this season. Like every pitcher, he has had a couple of bad starts.
Run support has been a problem when he pitches, and it has cost him several wins. In six of his starts in 2012, the Nationals have scored one run or fewer. They scored two runs in another one of his starts.
Jackson will use last year's experience to finish strong this season. He was picked up mid-season last year by the St. Louis Cardinals, and he went 5-2 down the stretch to help them make an improbable postseason run.
Last week, ESPN reported Washington's Davey Johnson was unsure when phenom Stephen Strasburg would be shut down this season, but Jackson will need to step up in his absence.
The Nationals have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball, and Jackson has been overshadowed by Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez.
Jackson's experience last year will help the Nationals down the stretch, and he will continue to pitch well through the end of the season.
Brandon Phillips, Cincinnati Reds
After staying healthy for most of the season, the Cincinnati Reds have relied on Brandon Phillips during a crucial part of the season.
The team lost All-Star first baseman Joey Votto in mid-July, and Phillips has stepped up to replace him in the No. 3 spot in the lineup.
Since moving up in the lineup, he has hit .277 with three home runs and 12 RBI. He hit .300 during most of Votto's absence but went 0-for-5 in two of his last three games while dealing with a calf injury.
The Reds are 16-5 without their first baseman, and Phillips has been a major reason for the recent surge. He helped the team win 10 straight games and 15 of 16 in the past few weeks.
When Votto returns, Phillips will return to the cleanup spot. He has hit over .300 this season in the No. 4 spot, so he will continue to produce.
He is the emotional leader of this team, and he will lead them back to the postseason. His play down the stretch will be a reason why Cincinnati will have one of the best trio of hitters in all of baseball.
Phillips is the best defensive player in the league, so he will lead the way on offense and defense.
Santiago Casilla, San Francisco Giants
The San Francisco Giants won the 2010 World Series because of their pitching. They are getting good starting pitching this year, and they will need Santiago Casilla to continue to pitch well.
Although he has not had a save since July 21st, he has been reliable all season. He had a 1.17 ERA through the first two months of the season, but he started to allow more runs as the weather got warmer.
Four of his six blown saves occurred in July, so the team needs him to rebound down the stretch. Closer Brian Wilson shut down opponents in 2010, and the team needs the new closer to repeat that performance.
Closers are very difficult to replace, but the Giants rely on pitching to win. A strong performance down the stretch by the right-hander will have San Francisco playing meaningful baseball in September.
Casilla's performance will be important, and he will respond by finishing games strong.
Ichiro Suzuki, New York Yankees
Ichiro Suzuki surprisingly went to the New York Yankees in a mid-season trade this year, and he will play a major role in the team's success down the stretch.
The Yankees are tied for the best record in the league, and they have done most of it without the veteran outfielder.
He is in the middle of the worst season of his career, but a change in scenery will motivate him to hit better.
Ichiro has played in the playoffs once in his career, and he has not been there since his rookie season in 2001. The former batting champion is looking to improve his .259 and avoid having an on-base percentage below .300 for the first time in his career.
Before last season, he had never hit below .300 in a season. Hitting at Yankee Stadium will help his average.
He began his career in New York by hitting in 12 straight games before going hitless in his last game.
There is very little pressure on Ichiro to be the hitter he used to be, but he will perform well on the big stage. The lineup is filled with stars, so his production at the bottom of the lineup will be a bonus.
Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays
Evan Longoria returns to the Tampa Bay lineup on Tuesday, and it will be a much-needed boost for the Rays.
At 57-52, the team sits in third place of the AL East but remains only one-and-a-half games back of the Angels for the final wild card spot. They trail the Yankees by six games in the division, so a wild card spot is more realistic.
The Rays contended most of the year without their star player, and his addition to the lineup will push the team to the postseason.
The third baseman was hitting.329 before an injury cost him most of this season. Now he must find a way to continue to hit well and lead his team during the final two months.
He provides the team with power and average, so he has the potential to carry the team through the final 53 games. From August 7th to the end of last season, he hit .276 with 16 home runs and 42 RBI.
Those numbers are important because he played in arguably the wildest September in baseball history. His team's eight-game comeback in September was almost as improbable as the comeback by St. Louis.
ESPN.com's Howard Bryant described the turn of events, and it was Longoria who completed the comeback with a walk-off home run against the Yankees after trailing 7-0 in the eighth inning.
Last year's comeback showed Longoria can carry his team, so he will be able to lead the back to the postseason now that he is healthy.
Jake Peavy, Chicago White Sox
Jake Peavy was once the best pitcher in the National League, and he is finally returning to his old form.
His 9-7 record is nothing special, but his 3.04 ERA has led the surprising Chicago White Sox to first place in the AL Central. Although he struggled in May, he has been very good the rest of the season.
Wins and losses can be misleading for a pitcher, and Peavy is a perfect example. He went 0-4 in June despite having a 2.76 ERA in 42.1 innings in the month. In those four losses, he allowed nine runs. The White Sox scored two runs during that four-game stretch.
His 21 starts are the most he has made since he pitched for the San Diego Padres in 2008. Peavy has always pitched well in the second half, so he is poised for a big end to the season.
The AL Central is the weakest division in baseball, and Peavy will benefit from playing teams within the division. Chicago has two series remaining against Cleveland and Minnesota. After their current series against Kansas City, the White Sox still have three series' left against the Royals.
Those teams are all under .500, and they struggle on offense. Peavy will have very little difficulty against them, so he will see his numbers improve.
Bruce Levine of ESPNChicago.com has Peavy among the contenders for the American League Player of the Year.
Alexi Ogando, Texas Rangers
The Texas Rangers have one of the league's best offenses, so they will need great pitching to make another deep run this year.
Outside of July, Alexi Ogando has been a great force out of the bullpen.
After being in the starting rotation last season, he returned to the bullpen. He is striking out over a batter per inning, so he has been very effective. He has 46 strikeouts to only 11 walks, and he will continue to throw strikes.
The Rangers need him to repeat what he did in his first season in the bullpen. In 2009, he had a 1.73 ERA after the All-Star break as a rookie. Another performance like that will have Texas back in the postseason.
Closer Joe Nathan is nursing an injury, and Ogando has filled in perfectly. He converted both save opportunities and gave the team confidence in him.
Ogando has great stuff, and he will continue to dominate hitters as the Rangers get closer to the postseason.
Torii Hunter, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Although he is no longer the dominant force he once was, Torii Hunter will be an important part of the team's success the rest of the season
Mike Trout and Albert Pujols get the headlines on offense, but Hunter is quietly having a good season.
He is having a rebound season and will be the key down the stretch. The 37-year-old outfielder is hitting .292 with 11 home runs and 54 RBI.
Hunter has hit mainly in the No. 2 spot in the lineup and has a .335 average in that spot. Now that Pujols is back to normal, Hunter is getting better pitches to hit and putting up good numbers.
The Angels have a dangerous offense, and he will continue to get on base. With Trout ahead of him, Hunter will need to be able to advance him if he does not reach base.
Mark Saxon of ESPNLosAngeles.com wrote a feature on Hunter, and the veteran wants to mentor the 21-year-old Trout. Hunter was one of the best outfielders in baseball for a period of time, and he can help Trout as the league adjusts to him.
Los Angeles has taken over the second wild card spot, and Hunter will continue to hit down the stretch and help secure a postseason berth.
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