Predicting 25 Pennant Race Heroes of MLB's Final Week
When things get tight at the end of the MLB season, some players show up and guide their teams into the playoffs, while others collapse under the pressure. The players who come up with these big hits or big outs are not always stars.
Last season, it was Dan Johnson, a .119 hitter on the year and a .235 hitter up to that point in his career who came up huge. He hit a game-tying home run with two strikes and two outs in the bottom of the ninth as the Tampa Bay Rays were one strike away from being eliminated.
There will be more stretch-run heroes this season, and a September call-up could have his own Dan Johnson-like moment this season. Timely hitting could determine who is playing in October and who is going to start a vacation.
Big players come up in big moments, and Derek Jeter is exactly that type of player. The New York Yankees likely will be fighting for the American League East title right until the last day of the season.
During the last week of the season, Jeter should pick up at least one big hit or make one big defensive play that keeps the Yankees in a game or gives them the lead.
The New York Yankees have been without Brett Gardner for almost all of the 2012 season, and he has certainly been missed. Fortunately for the Yankees, they now have Gardner back (via Wallace Matthews of ESPN New York).
Gardner will mostly be used as a pinch-runner and a defensive replacement. While it is not the most glamorous of plays, Gardner could have a huge impact when he goes from first to third on a single or when he scores from second on one.
Throwing a rookie into the middle of a pennant race and expecting him to perform is asking a lot. It is even more stressful when that player has not even turned 20 years old yet.
Manny Machado has lived up to the hype and hasn't had a problem with the added pressure of the playoff race. The Baltimore Orioles youngster could come up with a huge play that helps his team jump ahead of the New York Yankees.
When the Baltimore Orioles acquired Adam Jones in the deal that sent Erik Bedard to the Seattle Mariners, they thought that he could be a future all-star. He has absolutely lived up to that billing the past few seasons.
Jones has been a huge part of the Orioles' surprising success this year, and he can help lead his team to the playoffs for the first time since 1997.
After three tough stints in the major leagues, Chris Tillman has finally put things together. He has looked fantastic, and he has a 3.08 ERA in 18 starts.
Tillman has one more start on the year, and the Orioles need him to come up big. A strong start from the young righty will be huge as the Orioles try to lock up a playoff spot.
Last season, the Baltimore Orioles played spoiler as they came back against the Boston Red Sox on the last day of the year, beat them and caused them to miss out on the postseason. This year, the Orioles want one of their late-season wins to clinch them a playoff spot.
Endy Chavez has performed in big moments before—like when he made "The Catch,"—and he could do it again. A diving or jumping catch from Chavez could help the Orioles keep a lead late in an important game this year.
With a week of games left this season, the Tampa Bay Rays are going to need a few players to be heroes if they are going to close their two-and-a-half game deficit in the wild-card race.
Carlos Pena could be one of those players. He is a threat to hit a home run every time that he steps to the plate, and the Rays need him to deliver.
In his first full season in the major leagues, Desmond Jennings has done a pretty good job in the Tampa Bay Rays outfield. He has gotten much stronger as the season has progressed. Jennings hit .231 in the first half and now has a .281 second-half batting average.
The Rays are hoping that Jennings remains hot for the next week or so as they try to return to the postseason.
If he did it last season, why can't he do it again? Dan Johnson is once again in the midst of a tight playoff race, this time as a member of the Chicago White Sox.
Johnson has hit .357 since the White Sox called him up this September. Based on his performance last year, the White Sox should have no qualms sending Johnson to the plate with the game on the line.
Adam Dunn is the epitome of a "three true outcomes" hitter. He has come to the plate 614 times on the year, and he has hit 41 home runs, walked 100 times and struck out 207 times. Dunn is the only player in MLB history with at least 40 home runs, 100 walks and 200 strikeouts in one season, according to Baseball-Reference.com (h/t Matt Snyder of CBS Sports).
If Dunn comes to the plate in a close ballgame, the Chicago White Sox will hope that the outcome yielded is a go-ahead or game-winning home run.
There are few players around the league, if any, whom a team would want at the plate in a tie game in the ninth inning more than Miguel Cabrera. He is one of the best players in baseball.
Cabrera is currently chasing after the American League Triple Crown, and he has helped the Detroit Tigers catch up to the Chicago White Sox. One swing of Cabrera's bat could be all it takes to move them ahead of the White Sox.
Justin Verlander is only scheduled to make one more start this season, but if the Detroit Tigers are still fighting for first place on the last day of the season, it is almost certain that Verlander would go to the mound on short rest.
If that is the case, the Tigers could get big things from Verlander. He could be good for a complete game shutout when the Tigers need it most.
At this point, the only thing left for the Texas Rangers to do this season is to try to lock up home-field advantage up until the World Series. They could do that with just a few more wins.
Josh Hamilton is hoping to turn things up a notch during the last week of the season and the postseason in the hopes of getting a slightly larger deal this offseason.
Yoenis Cespedes has lived up to the hype that has surrounded him entering the season, and he has been one of the best players on the Oakland Athletics this year. They are trying to hold onto their wild-card spot.
Oakland needs Cespedes to keep up his hot play during the last week of the season. A few timely home runs from him could be enough to hold off the Los Angeles Angels and Tampa Bay Rays.
Stephen Drew has a $10 million mutual option for next season, and his time with the Oakland Athletics has been an audition to try to convince them that they should pick up their half of it.
A big final week of the season from Drew would be mutually beneficial. It would help lead the Athletics into the playoffs, and it might help Drew convince them to exercise their half of the option.
After taking some time to get used to his new surroundings, Albert Pujols once again showed why he is one of the best hitters in baseball. Pujols has been helping the Los Angeles Angels climb back up in the wild-card race.
Pujols has had a number of big hits in the past, and he is the type of player who seems to get even better when there is additional pressure placed upon him.
Mike Trout has produced in big situations all season, so there is no reason to believe that the young phenom will stop any time soon.
Trout has put together an incredible rookie season, and he has a chance to be the American League MVP. A key hit in the last week of the season to push the Los Angeles Angels ahead of the Oakland Athletics could also help Trout's MVP chances.
There are a number of young players around the league who are going to have a big impact on the postseason. Bryce Harper is one of those players.
Harper has been heating up over the last few weeks, and the Washington Nationals need him to continue to produce at a high level if they are going lock up home-field advantage throughout the NLCS.
Replacing Stephen Strasburg in the Washington Nationals starting rotation is no easy feat. John Lannan has done a decent, going 1-1 in his two starts since then.
Lannan needs to put together a good outing to keep the Nationals ahead of the Cincinnati Reds in the race for home-field advantage.
Ryan Ludwick has been on an absolute tear during the second half of the season. He is hitting .312 with 14 home runs and 46 RBI in 56 games.
The Cincinnati Reds are in the midst of a tight race with the Washington Nationals for home-field advantage, and Ludwick could be a difference-maker in this race.
With Joey Votto back, Todd Frazier has gone back to splitting time at third base with Scott Rolen. Frazier has had a solid rookie campaign, and he will be a big part of the Cincinnati Reds in the playoffs.
Frazier has had a number of opportunities as a pinch-hitter this year, and he could get a few more in the season's final week. There is a chance that Frazier could come off the bench to deliver a hit that gives the Reds home-field advantage.
The St. Louis Cardinals have a pretty comfortable lead over both the Milwaukee Brewers and the Los Angeles Dodgers for the last NL wild-card spot.
With just seven more games left in the season, the Cardinals likely need to win two or three to clinch their playoff spot. Don't be surprised if Yadier Molina comes up with a big hit in one of those games.
After trading away Zack Greinke, the Milwaukee Brewers got things in order and made a bit of a run. Unfortunately for them, it will likely be too little too late to obtain a wild-card berth.
Jean Segura is going to need to come up huge this week to complement the array of talented hitters that the Brewers have if they are going to make the playoffs.
Buster Posey has gotten stronger and stronger as the season has gone on this year. He has hit an absurd .383 in the second half of the year, and he has led the San Francisco Giants to a playoff spot.
While Posey may get some rest during the last week of the season, he can help the Giants reach for the second-best record in the National League.
Even after all of the acquisitions that the Los Angeles Dodgers made this winter, they are still on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoff race. L.A. knows what they can expect from star players like Matt Kemp and Adrian Gonzalez, but it needs others to step up if it is going to pull off a comeback.
If Mark Ellis could go on a late-season tear, it would help improve the Dodgers' postseason chances.
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