MLB Playoffs 2011: Randy Wolf and the 12 Biggest Surprise Heroes of the Playoffs
That Randy Wolf would shut down the St. Louis Cardinals offense in a key playoff game is scarcely imaginable. The Milwaukee Brewers' lone southpaw starter faced a lineup stacked with men who murder left-handed pitching, men like Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and David Freese.
Holliday homered in the second inning of Thursday's NLCS Game 4 to put St. Louis ahead, and Allen Craig (another right-handed lefty masher) followed an inning later with a blast of his own to make it 2-0 Cardinals. The Brewers looked in danger of falling behind in the series three games to one.
Then, nothing. Wolf suddenly began hitting his spots directly, getting the ball down and generally avoiding the middle of the plate, and Cardinals hitters never caught up to his adjustments. Meanwhile, Milwaukee stormed back with four runs in the fourth through sixth innings and ended up winning to even the set.
Wolf by no means came from nowhere. He has over 2,000 career innings and over 1,600 strikeouts to his credit. He simply caught everyone off guard by holding down the NL's best offense despite the tough match they made for him. Wolf goes into Brewers lore as a sort of savior, restoring their home-field advantage and possibly vaulting them into their first World Series since 1982.
Here are the 12 biggest surprise heroes of this postseason to date.
12. Ben Francisco
If the Phillies had only been able to advance past the NLDS, Francisco might finally have gotten the respect he has long deserved.
His expanded role this season did not ultimately work out, but Francisco came up with perhaps the biggest single hit of the postseason thus far when he launched a three-run, pinch-hit homer off St. Louis' Jaime Garcia in the seventh inning of Game 3.
11. Randy Wolf
Wolf got lit up in Game 4 of the NLDS, putting the Brewers in peril of elimination by surrendering seven runs in three innings. It was a bad matchup for Wolf, as was the one he had with the Cardinals in Game 4 of the NLCS Thursday.
Wolf, though, bounced back in a big way, fanning six and walking just one while allowing two runs over seven frames. The Brewers had to feel backed against the wall after losing with Yovani Gallardo on the mound in Game 3, but after Wolf's surprising stopper performance, Milwaukee is right back in the series.
10. Matt Moore
Though the Rays were dismissed in four games after their stirring regular-season comeback, Moore provided some short-lived excitement for fans by throwing a gem in Game 1 of the ALDS and leading Tampa past the Texas Rangers for what would be the only time.
Moore is baseball's best pitching prospect, but even so, Joe Maddon raised eyebrows with his choice to start Moore to open the series. The Rangers' largely right-handed lineup of sluggers seemed an imposing opponent for one's second career start in the big leagues, regardless of the stage.
Yet Moore pitched very well, striking out six and allowing just four baserunners in seven shutout innings. The Rays may be home for the winter now, but they got a good jolt of hope for 2012 from their greenest rookie on the last day of September.
9. Yuniesky Betancourt
Betancourt is a sabermetric punch line, arguably the worst regular infielder in baseball. He neither defends the position at shortstop nor hits well most of the time, and he has no secondary skills.
Here's the thing, though: Betancourt can run into the ball sometimes. When he does, he has the ability to drive the ball from gap to gap, racking up extra-base hits. In these playoffs, he has four of those and 12 total hits in 35 plate appearances.
He's hitting .353/.371/.559 and has scored seven runs and driven in five. If the Brewers reach the World Series, it might well be that they will have their worst player to thank.
8. Joaquin Benoit
It didn't even end up as one of the winter's five most maligned free-agent moves, but the Tigers did overpay for Benoit in some sense. Still, he has come up bigger than big in these playoffs. He's put seven runners on base in 7.2 innings but also has nine strikeouts and a 1.17 ERA.
In this ALCS against Texas, he has not allowed a hit in four innings of work over three games.
7. Scott Feldman
If you told the Rangers or their fans that Scott Feldman would stand on the mound as the ALCS swung decisively, they might have been forgiven for going a bit pale.
Feldman took over with the Rangers trailing 3-2 in Game 2 in the top of the third inning, the Tigers having a man in scoring position with just one out. He proceeded to dominate Detroit, though, for 13 outs, allowing just two baserunners—and one of those on an error.
Texas caught the Tigers and then beat them in extra innings, stealing a second win at home despite a miserable outing from Derek Holland as the starter. Without Feldman, who can say but that Detroit might lead this series right now?
6. Ryan Roberts
Don't blame Roberts for Arizona's five-game NLDS loss to Milwaukee. He had two home runs, including a first-inning grand slam in Game 4 that sent a huge message to the Brewers and had Chase Field as loud as it has been in a decade or more.
Roberts flies beneath the radar but racked up 14 total bases in 20 plate appearances in the five-game set. Had Arizona advanced, his manful curtain call after the slam would be among the truly indelible images of this postseason thus far. It might be anyway.
5. Jerry Hairston Jr.
Even apart from this great slide to score a key run Thursday, Hairston has been huge for Milwaukee this month. Casey McGehee all but relegated himself to the bench with a miserable second-half slump, forcing Hairston to step up and start at the hot corner in all nine games thus far.
All he has done in response to that assignment is hit .375/.405/.531 with five doubles, play fine defense and generally be a major factor in the team's success.
4. Ryan Raburn
Raburn played in just three of the five ALDS games and started just once. He might not have gotten substantially more chances but was called upon because of the toll of injuries Detroit began to take on in the outfield.
Given his big break, Raburn has mashed the Rangers to the tune of a .316/.435/.684 line in 23 plate appearances in this series. His three-run homer almost stood up as the Tigers' only offense in Game 2, but they eventually lost that one. Thursday, he launched another homer in Detroit's back-against-the-wall win.
3. Jason Motte
Entering these playoffs, St. Louis had by far the least heralded closer among qualifying teams. Motte had just nine saves in 13 opportunities this season, spending most of the year setting up others in that topsy-turvy bullpen.
Suddenly, though, smelling the October air, Motte lost his mind. His high-90s fastball has been buzzing all month, and in 5.2 innings over five appearances, he has fanned six and allowed only one hit while locking down all three save opportunities accorded to him by Tony La Russa.
2. A.J. Burnett
Yankees fans did not want to see A.J. Burnett on the mound during the postseason. Hell, manager Joe Girardi was reluctant himself.
Burnett got the ball in Game 4 of the ALDS only because rain forced the Yankees to deploy a fourth starter, and with Detroit a win away from eliminating the Yankees, many in New York were already musing about the frustration of a series loss.
Burnett would have none of it. Though he got into a ton of trouble early on and allowed eight baserunners in 5.2 innings of work that night, he pinned the Tigers to one run and collected the win in that crucial game. He may still be derided in the Bronx for a while, but he acquitted himself well when it mattered most.
1. Delmon Young
Young's postseason OPS thus far stands at 1.079. Despite an oblique injury that nearly shelved him for this ALCS matchup, Young has five total homers (three against New York, two against Texas) in 32 plate appearances during this run.
More an extra piece than an impact acquisition in August, Young has rewarded the faith of Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski in a big way in these playoffs.