They could be legends of the fall
Fifteen characters who set the stage for post-season play
You never know whom fate will choose to be a post-season hero. Some years, it’s Derek Jeter, Madison Bumgarner or David Ortiz. Other years, it’s Mark Lemke or David Eckstein or Steve Pearce. By the end of October, things haven’t always gone the way you envisioned at the start of the month. We don’t know who will play the best for the next four weeks, but we know who fascinates us the most at the post-season’s outset.
Here, then, are the 15 most intriguing characters (in reverse order) of the 2019 playoffs — although you might want to check back around Halloween.
> Jesus Luzardo, relief pitcher, Athletics: A top prospect who debuted in the majors in early September, Luzardo has only made six appearances, but that was enough to show he could be a huge, multi-inning secret weapon out of the bullpen for Bob Melvin and the A’s.
> Charlie Morton, starting pitcher, Rays: The right-hander, who locked down the final 12 outs of the Astros’ 2017 World Series title in relief, is now the ace of the Rays’ staff and, in the year of the home run, has been the toughest AL pitcher to hit a homer against (0.69 per nine innings).
> Mike Soroka, starting pitcher, Braves: The 22-year-old Canadian right-hander has been the Braves’ top starter, but he has zero post-season experience, and because of that — plus his superior road splits this year — the Braves apparently will save him for Game 3 at St. Louis and use battle-tested lefty Dallas Keuchel in Game 1 at home against St. Louis.
> Aaron Boone, manager, Yankees: New York appears determined to be creative with its October pitching and that will put a spotlight on Boone, one of the favourites for AL manager of the year. He has a stacked bullpen, but the way he runs the front half of games will be at least as interesting.
> Nelson Cruz, designated hitter, Twins: The unquestioned leader of the homer-happy Twins, Cruz became the third player in history, after Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds, to hit 40-plus homers at 39 or older. In a lineup full of bashers, he’s the one teams won’t want to let beat them.
> Yordan Alvarez, designated hitter, Astros: Who’s the best pure hitter in these playoffs? By on-base-plus-slugging percentage (minimum 350 plate appearances), it’s the Astros’ 22year-old rookie (1.067). Since his June arrival, the Astros’ offence has been the best in the majors. But if they make the World Series, he’ll have to play some left field, where his defence is shaky.
> Josh Hader, closer, Brewers: A brilliant, multi-inning weapon for the Brewers last October (0.00 ERA, 10 IP, 16 Ks), he is one of the main reasons the Brewers survived the loss of MVP Christian Yelich to injury. Don’t be surprised if he goes two or three innings in the wild-card game.
> Rob Manfred, commissioner, MLB: It’s his signature on the baseballs, and while he managed to tamp down unrest over “juiced” balls during the regular season, an ugly, playoffs-wide October slugfest would put him back on the defensive.
> Max Scherzer, starting pitcher, Nationals: With Scherzer at the top of his game, the Nationals are a dangerous opponent. But that version of Scherzer hasn’t been seen in weeks. Has his skid been enough for him to lose No. 1 status?
> Jack Flaherty, starting pitcher, Cardinals: The 23-year-old right-hander was the best starter in baseball after the all-star break (0.91 ERA in 15 starts) and represents the Cardinals’ best hope for rising above the favoured Braves and Dodgers in the NL half of the bracket.
> Kenley Jansen, closer, Dodgers: Once considered among the best in the game, Jansen is now the weak link in the Dodgers’ pitching chain. Management has danced around this question, but with the season on the line, would they really give the ball to Jansen in the ninth?
> Freddie Freeman, first baseman, Braves: For all the talk about phenom Ronald Acuna Jr., Freeman is the Braves’ most dangerous hitter, which makes his late-September elbow injury all the more disquieting. At their best, the Braves are at least the Dodgers’ equal in the NL. Without Freeman they aren’t their best.
> Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, starting pitchers, Astros: Houston’s twin aces, neck and neck for the AL Cy Young Award, get a combo entry here as a seemingly unbeatable onetwo punch. Although the game has changed acutely, this could be the 2001 Diamondbacks, with Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson, all over again.
> Luis Severino, starting pitcher, Yankees: Severino’s dominance (small-sample-size alert) since returning from injury in mid September has changed the pitching equation for the Yankees, giving them a potential ace they weren’t necessarily expecting to have to match up against Cole or Verlander in a hypothetical ALCS.
> Cody Bellinger, outfielder/first baseman, Dodgers: A year ago, the Dodgers regularly benched Bellinger against lefties. This year, he’s the favourite to be the NL MVP, with his offensive thunder matched by defensive brilliance at right field, first base and, of late, centre field. We have a hunch the Dodgers will play him every game this time.
A year ago, the Dodgers regularly benched Cody Bellinger against lefties. This year, he’s the favourite to be the NL MVP.