As the Major League Baseball season winds down, the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers are close to clinching their divisions. Meanwhile, the National League Central is not only still up for grabs, but is also inextricably linked with the NL Wild Card race. The Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds are clustered atop the division, separated from top-to-bottom by three games with the Reds hosting the Pirates for the last weekend of the season.
Applying extra pressure are the Washington Nationals of the NL East, who have climbed back into contention and sit five games out of the second NL Wild Card position.
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As the race heats up, all eyes will be on key game changers like Andrew McCutchen, Joey Votto, Bryce Harper and Yadier Molina. But as anyone familiar with baseball knows, it’s often the second-tier stars who make the biggest difference down the stretch. Below are a few not-quite-A-list guys whose performances could heavily impact their team’s playoff push. You might want to keep an eye on them.
Jeff Locke, SP, Pittsburgh Pirates — The Pirates have made key acquisitions to bolster their offense down the stretch, but they’re still ranked 22 in runs scored, as well as 23 in batting average and 19 in slugging percentage across all teams. They’ve relied on their pitching all season, and if they’re going to make a run at the World Series, their pitching must continue to shine. Lefty starter Jeff Locke was an early-season star, landing a spot on the All-Star team, but he’s since come back to Earth, posting a 7.94 ERA in August and going 1-2 in September. He is showing signs of bouncing back, and if he can return to his former self down the stretch, the Pirates will have a trio of daunting starters at the top of the rotation. Combined with an improved defense and possibly the best bullpen in the division, this could carry the Pirates to the division title.
John Axford, RP, St. Louis Cardinals — The Cardinals, unlike the Pirates, don’t have much trouble scoring runs. They’re ranked third in baseball in that department, as well as third in batting average and fifth in on-base percentage. Their pitching numbers, while solid, are decidedly more middling, which is why the acquisition of reliever John Axford could make an enormous difference down the stretch. Axford is sporting a 4.26 ERA, but don’t be fooled — his ERA has declined each of the past three months and he has 1o6 career saves. The guy knows how to pitch under pressure, and if he can shorten games on behalf of the Cardinals, they can take the division and avoid the NL Wild Card play-in game.
Adam LaRoche, 1B, Washington Nationals — First baseman Adam LaRoche is one of baseball’s best examples of a guy who gets it done without much fanfare. A career .265 hitter with 217 home runs, LaRoche is a veteran with prodigious — albeit streaky — power and tends to heat up in the second half. This season has been unusually tough for LaRoche: he’s only hitting .239, and has hit under .200 in two different months — including a stupefying .136 in April. But he’s still managed 20 home runs and is batting .298 in September. He’s a solid veteran leader, has a good glove at first base, and if he stays hot, the Nationals will have a fighting chance at an NL Wild Card berth.
Zack Cozart, SS, Cincinnati Reds — One of the first things people think about when they think about the Reds is hitting. They have a home-run-happy ballpark, renowned run producers like Jay Bruce, Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips, and they seem to score runs in bunches. Unfortunately, this is exactly the problem: the Reds tend to score more in bunches than on a consistent basis. They have a bunch of streaky hitters, particularly Bruce, who sometimes seems to hit everything 400 feet and other times seems like a strikeout waiting to happen. But Bruce has been an important source of clutch hits and has produced his first season with 30 home runs and 100 RBI. Meanwhile, Zack Cozart, their athletic but unpredictable shortstop, has confounded both fans and fantasy owners alike. Because he’s a solid defender with a high offensive upside, Cozart has remained in the lineup despite stretches of ineffectiveness. He sports a .255 batting average and has batted as high as second and as low as eighth in the order. However, he hit .282 in August and is hitting .306 in September. When he has good at-bats, the lineup comes to life. The Reds are in the top four in baseball in ERA, WHIP, batting average against and quality starts, and when their lineup comes to life, they’re extremely dangerous.
Billy Hamilton, OF, Cincinnati Reds — One thing familiar to many baseball fans is the saying that “speed kills.” The well-timed insertion of a pinch-runner late in a game can help manufacture a key run for a team that needs a win. The Cincinnati Reds recently called up a backup center fielder named Billy Hamilton, a 23-year-old with ridiculous speed, and his impact has been immediate. He has stolen bases with reckless abandon, scored game winning runs and provided late-game defensive boosts. Hamilton’s first Major League start was a game that went 13 innings in Houston, which the Reds won 6-5 so stay within a half-game of the Pirates. He went 3-4, with two runs and four stolen bases, and his role as a catalyst continues to grow. He’s not even listed on the team’s positional depth chart yet, but he’s already contributed to several stretch-run victories. If the Reds win the division, Billy Hamilton will certainly have played a part.
Of course, there are other players who have made below-the-radar contributions to keeping their teams in playoff contention. Such is the nature of Major League Baseball in September, and if this year is anything like last year, an exciting stretch run will lead to a thrilling postseason. Keep your eyes peeled, and not just on the big names.