5 MAKE-OR-BREAK PLAYERS IN PLAYOFFS
Postseason is known to produce some surprise heroes
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
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.
Starter Drew Pomeranz and his curveball could propel the Red Sox to the World Series.
The Nationals’ Gio Gonzalez is having his finest year in the majors.
Jose Quintana likely will start Game 4 of the NLDS for the Cubs.
The Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig is talented but has mood swings.
Yankees reliever Chad Green has been unhittable.