5 MAKE-OR-BREAK PLAY­ERS IN PLAY­OFFS

Post­sea­son is known to pro­duce some sur­prise he­roes

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Bob Klapisch

The beauty of post­sea­son pre­dic­tions is how quickly they wilt in Oc­to­ber’s su­per­charged at­mos­phere. Some folks thrive; other find it hard to breathe. The chal­lenge is fig­ur­ing out who’s who when the sea­son boils down to one pitch. Now you know why my crys­tal ball is be­ing hawked for pennies on eBay.

Of course, there’s an easy way out — place your bets on the su­per­stars. You can’t go wrong say­ing the Dodgers need Clay­ton Ker­shaw to chase away the last of his post­sea­son de- mons, or that the Red Sox are count­ing on Chris Sale to pitch like he did in the first half. Or that the Yan­kees en­vi­sion home runs, not strike­outs, from Aaron Judge. Those are like jump­ing jacks com­pared to the more stren­u­ous task of find­ing the un­der-the-radar dif­fer­ence-mak­ers.

You know, the ones buried deep in the scout­ing re­ports but still ca­pa­ble of break­ing hearts. Start with the all-time stealth Mr. Oc­to­ber, Don Larsen in 1956, and sud­denly the list pop­u­lates with the likes of Ra­jai Davis (In­di­ans, 2016) and Sal­vador Perez (Roy­als, 2015) be­fore the time tun­nel takes you all the way back to Bucky Dent in 1978. You get the idea.

So what’s in store start­ing

next week? Look out for the Na­tion­als’ Max Scherzer and the Dodgers’ Ken­ley Jansen and all the Cubs, who feel like huge un­der­dogs. But here are the as­sets who just might sur­prise you along the way. Drew Pomer­anz, Red Sox:

Ob­vi­ously, the Red Sox won’t get far with­out Sale, but even if he straight­ens him­self out from a rocky Septem­ber (nine homers in 29 in­nings), the ro­ta­tion’s sec­ond tier still needs to de­liver. Scouts were gen­er­ally im­pressed with Pomer­anz’s 16-win per­for­mance this year, at least un­til his in­nings started to creep up. That might ex­plain why he al­lowed five runs in two in­nings against the Blue Jays on Mon­day.

Pomer­anz is three in­nings shy of his ca­reer high (170.2), and it shows: he’s lost 2 mph off his four-seam fast­ball in just the last month. So why is the left-han­der still so vi­tal? Be­cause his curve­ball has been a beast for most of the year, get­ting op­po­nents to swing at it one out of ev­ery three times it bounces in the dirt. Big and loopy, break­ing from the neck to the knees, Pomer­anz’s curve rad­i­cally in­creases the per­ceived ve­loc­ity of his fast­ball, even in its cur­rently di­min­ished state.

Of course, all bets are off if Pomer­anz is in­deed gassed. But if all he needs is a shot of Oc­to­ber adren­a­line, watch out, the Sox

could eas­ily end up in the World Se­ries.

Chad Green, Yan­kees: Again, there were plenty of easy and ob­vi­ous choices in the Bronx, in­clud­ing Judge and Luis Sev­erino, both of whom have had break­through sea­sons. Judge’s star power in par­tic­u­lar has soaked up most of the me­dia’s at­ten­tion and made it pos­si­ble for Green to dom­i­nate in near-anonymity.

But make no mis­take: This mid­dle-in­nings re­liever has been sim­ply un­hit­table. And he’s the ex­act sort of bridge to the late in­nings that has proved in­valu­able for re­cent Amer­i­can League pen­nant win­ners such as the Roy­als and In­di­ans.

His fast­ball ap­pears even quicker than the 98 mph that reg-

is­ters on the radar gun. Green has an easy, fluid mo­tion, some­what sim­i­lar to Mar­i­ano Rivera’s, cre­at­ing the il­lu­sion that his pitches ac­cel­er­ate the closer they get to the plate.

“Some­times his fast­ball even sneaks up on me, and I’m his catcher, I know what’s com­ing,” Austin Romine said. The seem­ing il­lu­sion has had a dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect on hit­ters, who are strik­ing out at the rate of nearly two per in­ning against Green.

Not that Green him­self can ex­plain it. He said good lo­ca­tion and the abil­ity to change op­po­nents’ eye level from pitch to pitch — low, then high, then low — is just as im­por­tant as pure ve­loc­ity. Whether Green is right or not, Joe Gi­rardi will rely on Green to lock down the sev­enth in­ning, or any time he needs 10-15 blow­away pitches be­fore Aroldis Chap­man fin­ishes up.

In other words: You don’t want to fall be­hind the Yan­kees af­ter the fifth in­ning.

Jose Quin­tana, Cubs: Fas­ci­nat­ing what’s go­ing on with the Cubs ro­ta­tion these days, even though the de­fend­ing world cham­pi­ons re­bounded nicely af­ter the All- Star break (45-24) af­ter com­ing in two games un­der

.500 in the first half.

So they’re all set, fu­eled by Joe Mad­don Zen-like calm, right? Not re­ally. Jon Lester and Jake Ar­ri­eta, who’ll start Games 1 and

2 of the Na­tional League Di­vi­sion Se­ries against the Na­tion­als, are less than ideally pre­pared.

Lester suf­fered through a bru­tal Au­gust (7.85 ERA), and al­though he’s since im­proved, he is still sport­ing an ERA near 5.00 this month while al­low­ing six homers in 271⁄ in­nings. Ar­ri­eta, 3 mean­while, has re­cently re­turned from the DL af­ter bat­tling ham­string is­sues. He lasted three in­nings and 67 pitches against the Car­di­nals on Tues­day.

Maybe both vet­er­ans will find that ex­tra gear in Oc­to­ber; the good ones al­ways do. But one way or an­other this Se­ries will likely come down to Quin­tana, who’ll start Game 4 with­out any post­sea­son ex­pe­ri­ence. As in, ever. And he’s never faced the Na­tion­als, ei­ther.

The range of pos­si­bil­i­ties is in­fi­nite. The Na­tion­als have no pre­vi­ous real-time data to work with, which could work to Quin­tana’s fa­vor. He’s pitched to a fine 3.50 ERA in his 13 starts with the Cubs, proof that his con­trol within the strike zone and in­tel­li­gent se­quenc­ing is a more re­li­able as­set than sim­ple ve­loc­ity. Should be in­ter­est­ing to see how he han­dles the win-or-else at­mos­phere. Game 4 could be an elim­i­na­tion game. Gio Gon­za­lez, Na­tion­als:

Look be­yond Wash­ing­ton’s two ter­mi­na­tors, Scherzer and Stephen Stras­burg, and you’ll re­al­ize Gon­za­lez is hav­ing his finest year in the ma­jors. You wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily have no­ticed — the left­hander has been over­shad­owed by the two harder-throw­ing right-han­ders at the front of the ro­ta­tion and the Na­tion­als them­selves ran away from the East by mid­sea­son. But Gon­za­lez has in­deed been breath­tak­ingly good in

2017.

His ERA (2.75) is at a ca­reer low and al­most two runs bet­ter than in 2016. Gon­za­lez’s strike­outs are up for the third sea­son in a row, his WHIP (1.154) has never been lower and he’s al­low­ing only

6.9 hits per nine in­nings, sec­ond best of his ca­reer.

How? Why? As ESPN re­cently noted, Gon­za­lez has be­come a mas­ter of in­duc­ing ground-ball outs with run­ners in scor­ing po­si­tion — 90% this year, com­pared to 62% in 2016. This is es­pe­cially im­por­tant be­cause the Cubs, whom the Na­tion­als will face in the Di­vi­sion Se­ries, will take on Gon­za­lez at home in Game 3 of the Di­vi­sion Se­ries. The left-han­der has not pitched well at Wrigley Field.

In four ca­reer starts (211⁄ in3 nings), Gon­za­lez has posted a 6.33 ERA and 1.55 WHIP. But those num­bers be­long to Gon­za­lez’s less-evolved ver­sion of him­self. If he’s truly reached an­other level of ef­fi­ciency this year, the Cubs will have trou­ble get­ting to the League Cham­pi­onship Se­ries. And that’s putting it gen­tly.

Yasiel Puig, Dodgers: Ac­tu­ally it’s a flip of the coin be­tween Puig and Yas­mani Gran­dal for our choice as L.A.’s stealth weapon. Puig is the on-again, off-again talent who in­trigues and in­fu­ri­ates man­ager Dave Roberts. And Gran­dal’s av­er­age has dropped al­most 50 points since the All-Star break.

Still, the catcher has hit 11 home runs in 174 at-bats, which is rea­son enough for pitch­ers to be wary of him. Gran­dal has the talent to emerge from the shad­ows next month, not to men­tion the law of av­er­ages, which are on his side. He can’t stay cold for­ever.

But Puig is a unique case. His to-die-for skills are matched only by his mood swings. The right fielder was benched this week for ar­riv­ing late to the ball­park, as well as ir­ri­tat­ing Roberts for mak­ing the fi­nal out in Satur­day’s 2-1 loss to the Gi­ants on an un­suc­cess­ful stolen base.

This is not a new nar­ra­tive. Puig is wired for petu­lance and might never change. But imag­ine if he could lock in for just one month. Think of the sus­tained dam­age he could in­flict. It’s the only rea­son why Roberts keeps writ­ing Puig ’s name in the lineup card.

BOB DECHIARA, USA TODAY SPORTS

Starter Drew Pomer­anz and his curve­ball could pro­pel the Red Sox to the World Se­ries.

BRAD MILLS, USA TODAY SPORTS

The Na­tion­als’ Gio Gon­za­lez is hav­ing his finest year in the ma­jors.

ED SZCZEPANSKI, USA TODAY SPORTS

Jose Quin­tana likely will start Game 4 of the NLDS for the Cubs.

CHARLES LECLAIRE, USA TODAY SPORT

The Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig is tal­ented but has mood swings.

NOAH K. MUR­RAY, USA TODAY SPORTS

Yan­kees re­liever Chad Green has been un­hit­table.

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