As baseball has turned the page on the dog days of August, and into September's pennant stretch, the season schedule dwindles quickly, and a sense of desperation envelops those teams fortunate enough to remain in the race.
The marathon is nearing its conclusion. Many have fallen back out of sight, others are limping along simply trying to finish; a few of the leaders are coasting along well ahead of the pack, while a few hopefuls are engaged in a feverish sprint toward the finish line. Any tripping up now could mean the proverbial, "wait until next year."
In the quest to extend their season into the crisp October nights of playoff baseball, clubs must produce a strong September, either to solidify their standing atop their respective division, or to catch and overtake the current leader.
Much of the heavy lifting down the stretch is performed by the usual suspects, the elite players that you'd expect the critical production to come from. The superstars have opportunities to cement their cases for postseason awards; a slugger can carry his club's offense on his back in the season's final month or an ace can set the tone for the rest of his rotation with dominance down the stretch.
However, the household names aren't always the players to rise to the occasion and carry their team to baseball's promised land. Occasionally, role players step to the forefront, filling in for an injured star, or a fading veteran will find one last reserve of greatness left over from his prime from which to draw, utilizing his veteran savvy and experience to lead his team to greater heights.
One of the more thrilling examples of such a phenomenon is when a young player, maybe just beginning his career, or possibly already on the cusp of breaking into full-fledged stardom, steps up his game over the final month or two of the season, and becomes an integral aspect of his ballclub's success.
We've seen it many times over the years, where a highly-regarded youngster seizes an opportunity and thrusts himself into baseball's limelight during its most crucial period. In 2002, Frankie Rodriguez appeared out of nowhere, making his first MLB appearance on September 18 and suddenly becoming an invaluable member of the eventual World Series Champion Angels.
Just a year later, a 20-year-old Miguel Cabrera made his debut for the Marlins during June of 2003, and quickly displayed the offensive prowess that would make him one of modern baseball's most-feared hitters. In September of that year, Cabrera hit .308 with an OPS of .875, while driving in 20 runs during the season's final month, en route to a stunning World Series title for the young Marlins.
In 2007, 24-year-old Dustin Pedroia overcame a difficult beginning to his big league career, in which he was hitting .172 on May 1, to catch fire over the second half and hit .324 with an .830 OPS over the final two months of the season. Pedroia became a major force for the Red Sox as they fought to their second World Series Championship within four years, and is now the heart of their club.
With September upon us, the time is now for heroes to be made, for a player to elevate his game and become a force down the stretch, to help lead his team to glory in playoff baseball.
On the still-contending teams, among the players 25 years old and under, who might be ready to lead his club into the bright lights of October? Let's take a look at the primary candidates with the potential to etch their name among the legends of baseball's pennant stretch.