Billy Hamilton Will Be NL Wild Card Game's Biggest X-Factor

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Billy Hamilton Will Be NL Wild Card Game's Biggest X-Factor
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

For baseball prospect savants, the arrival of Billy Hamilton to the major leagues was a big deal. For casual baseball fans, the legend of his world class speed was something to see. For the Pittsburgh Pirates or St. Louis Cardinals, it might be the difference between meaningful October baseball and a disappointing one game appearance in the 2013 postseason.

After posting 395 career minor league stolen bases, including seasons of 103 and 155, Cincinnati's decision to call up their top prospect added a layer of intrigue to the National League pennant chase.

Now, after Hamilton's two pinch-running appearances, two steals against the throwing catching prowess of Yadier Molina and two game-changing runs against the St. Louis Cardinals, the National League is on notice.

Led by Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Aroldis Chapman, Mat Latos and Homer Bailey, it would be easy to assume that the 2013 Reds had enough star power heading down the stretch to compete for the NL Central. While they do, there's now an x-factor in their clubhouse.

Legitimate, awe-inspiring, game-changing speed. 

After watching Hamilton run the bases for just two nights, I'm willing to put his speed "tool" up there with any "tool" from any player in the last two decades. Yes, I understand the magnitude of that assertion.

Mark McGwire's power. Barry Bonds' eye. Ichiro Suzuki's arm. Tony Gwynn's hitting stroke. Billy Hamilton's speed.

While the jury is still out on how often Reds manager Dusty Baker can and will deploy Hamilton, this much is certain: The 22-year-old prospect needs to be on Cincy's postseason roster.

Over the last two nights, in games that resembled an October atmosphere, Hamilton's speed changed the entire complexion of the game. Stealing bases against Yadier Molina, the best defensive catcher in a generation, is an arduous task, yet, despite getting a poor jump on Tuesday, Hamilton did just that.

On Wednesday, he did it again.

Everyone in the park knew why Dusty Baker inserted him into the game, but it didn't matter. When Hamilton is on first base, his arrival at second is a matter of "when" not "if."

With just 22 games remaining, Cincinnati sits four games back of Pittsburgh for the NL Central lead. If they can make up that ground, including moving past second place St. Louis, the decision to keep Hamilton on a five-game Division Series roster will be difficult due to the nature of needing extra pitchers in a series.

Of course, that seems unlikely. Cincy may move past St. Louis and into the No. 1 wild-card spot, which includes home-field advantage, but is a good bet to play in that game.

Based on the last two nights, Hamilton's ability to change the game in the instant he's called upon is a decided advantage in what could be a pitchers duel. If Mat Latos and Adam Wainwright match zeros for the first seven innings, imagine what Billy Hamilton can do in a pinch running spot in the 8th or 9th inning of a tie game.

If you are someone who needs historical perspective on how speed can change must-win games, here's a trip down memory lane from the 2004 ALCS:

Earlier this week, Major League Baseball announced their postseason schedule. While tiebreakers and a potential three-way tie in the NL Central could throw the tentative plan out of whack, plan on tuning in for the NL Central one-game battle on October 1.

If Dusty Baker and the Reds deploy their x-factor in the right situation, he, not a former MVP or All-Star, might be the player that sends Cincinnati on the path to a sustained postseason run.

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