Miguel Cabrera is one of the two best right-handed hitters in baseball. If the Detroit Tigers are going to go anywhere this postseason, it needs to Cabrera who steps up against southpaw CC Sabathia and the New York Yankees. Detroit trails the Yankees one game to none in their ALDS match-up, but Cabrera has the thunder in his lumber to change a game and get the Tigers back into the series.
When a team falls behind in a playoff series, it is always the star player (or star players) to whom the club turns for help. A role player can get a big hit or make a great defensive play, but cannot inject the same sort of energy as a leading star player can. The Tigers need more than Cabrera to come back against New York, but he is a crucial cog in their comeback schematic. Here are the 10 most important such cogs for the three teams who trail their Division Series entering Sunday.
Valverde saved 49 games without blowing one this season, which is great and all, but he hasn't actually been all that good. Valverde is in a nightmare match-up unless and until the Tigers beat the Yankees. He walks too many batters; the Yankees are extraordinarily patient. His fly-ball rate is up 25 percent over 2010; the Yankees have dangerous power.
If Valverde secures all save opportunities accorded him by the Tigers in this series, the team still has a chance to beat New York. That's a big 'if,' though. Valverde is important because he was a huge part of the Tigers' success all season, but projects to cost them a game in this set. If he defies that expectation, he becomes a huge part of their playoff success, as well.
Tony LaRussa refuses to name a closer, and even though Jason Motte is getting most of the save opportunities, Salas is their most important reliever. His three-pitch blend makes him effective to all hitters, and though he lacks the big fastball that grabs the attention on national telecasts in October, he has all the skills to be a stud relief ace.
La Russa has cleverly freed himself to use whichever of the two men better fits certain situations, but it will likely be Salas facing the most critical Phillies batters over the next few games.
Jackson came down a bit from his terrific rookie season in 2010, but remains good at a few things. He can run, he can hit a bit and he can go get the ball in center field with the best of them.
Max Scherzer and (to a lesser extent) Justin Verlander are fly-ball pitchers. Comerica Park offers a ton of ground to cover in center. At some point in this series, it will be incumbent upon Jackson to either make a critical catch on an outfield drive or (in his role as lead-off hitter) get on base ahead of Miguel Cabrera and company in a late-and-close situation. If he does, Detroit can win. If he fails, so will the Tigers.
Injured and held from the starting lineup, Holliday emerged Saturday only long enough to make the final out on a whiff at a Ryan Madson fastball. As much as anything else, it is important to the Cardinals that their second-best hitter get back on the field and provides a bit more meat to their lineup.
Failing that, Holliday actually represents a meaningful upgrade if he returns to his post in left field, relative to replacement Allen Craig. Holliday helps St. Louis on both sides of the ball, if only he can play.
Ziegler got just one out Saturday, with the game already nearly decided. That's hardly ideal, but in general, Kirk Gibson should use Ziegler every day in this series. Twice a day. Even on off days.
Aside from Prince Fielder, the Brewers have no impactful left-handed hitter. That's trouble when Ziegler takes the mound, because here are his stats against right-handed batters for his career: 168.1 innings, a .215 batting average against, seven strikeouts and just 2.14 walks per nine innings, and a 2.48 FIP (think ERA, but with external factors removed).
If Gibson can leverage Ziegler well, the Diamondbacks can still get back in this series. It's unlikely, but possible.
Cabrera is a huge asset to the Tigers. I mentioned him facing Sabathia earlier. Here are his career stats versus the big man: 22 plate appearances, nine hits, two home runs, four walks, 1.591 OPS. Cabrera is the most productive Tiger.
The reason he is here, though, and not atop the list, is that the Tigers are not desolate without him. Nothing could be more important than Cabrera's excellent contributions, those of a two-time defending OBP champion.
There are many other Detroitsmen, though, who (while less critical and less impressive than Miggy) are very good at their jobs. Victor Martinez, Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta line up there. So do Scherzer, Joaquin Benoit and Al Albuquerque. Cabrera is important, but is not alone.
Starting a game down and on the road, the pressure is high on Hudson, 24. He would do well to forget, then, that Arizona is over-matched in Game 3 (Joe Saunders v. Shaun Marcum) and even a potential Game 4 between (presumably) Josh Collmenter and Randy Wolf. Hudson has to win, because the D-Backs simply will not be able to come back from two games down to this Brewers team.
Holliday clearly is not at 100 percent. Lance Berkman cracked a three-run homer in the first inning Saturday, which ended up meaning mostly that Lance Berkman has one fewer bullet to fire the rest of the series.
Anyway, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels start the next two games for Philadelphia. Both are left-handed. Berkman is a career .261/.363/.415 hitter against southpaws. Pujols rings in at .337/.438/.648 in his career against lefties. If St. Louis is going to take one of the next two—and if they don't, after all, it's over—then Pujols is going to have to go Pujols on someone.
Entering these playoffs, Ryan Braun is the only right-hitting slugger who even might be as electric as Upton. The Arizona right fielder can not only hit big home runs. He can hit LONG home runs.
Whatever anyone chooses to believe, long home runs in the playoffs stick with people. They send messages. They turn tides. Reggie Jackson had a knack for doing it. Albert Pujols short-circuited Brad Lidge in 2005, even though the legendary homer he hit did not even carry the Cardinals to victory in the NLCS.
Upton has that kind of power. He can change a game. He will need to if the Snakes are to beat the Brewers.
Here comes Carpenter, he of the Wild Card-winning complete-game shutout that NEVER SHOULD HAVE BEEN. Why on Earth, realizing he might be headed to the playoffs, did Tony La Russa leave Carpenter in to complete the Cards' 8-0 win over Houston? It pushed him to 106 pitches, or roughly 40 more than he ever needed to have thrown, since the Cardinals sewed up the win very early on. It utterly, unnecessarily overused him.
Anyway, here comes Carpenter on short rest, trying to save the Cardinals' season by beating Cliff Lee. Could he still do it? Absolutely. In fact, he's the only one who can. Carpenter is more important than any other player in the postseason right now, because the Cards don't have enough behind him to even stay in it if Carpenter falters. He must win, it's October, and his opponent is Lee.