Who will be October’s Hero?

By on October 4, 2010

TAMPA, Florida (RSE) – Mickey Hatcher. Rick Dempsey. Brian Doyle. Gene Tenace.

Not exactly household baseball names, but all excelled under the harsh spotlight in October. As the Rays ready for the pressure cooker of the playoffs, who will emerge as this year’s hero?

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Will it be Carl Crawford?

Will B.J. Upton suddenly find his groove as he did two years ago after a subpar regular season and hit seven postseason home runs? Will Jeremy Hellickson be this year’s David Price and record big outs working out of the bullpen? Perhaps Dan Johnson will hit another 420 foot bomb to shock another opponent into defeat.

As often happens when teams focus so much attention on the big sluggers, it’s players like Tenace who step to the fore. A part-time catcher who hit .225 with five homers and 32 RBIs during the 1972 regular season, Tenace hit .348 with four of Oakland’s five homers and drove in nine of its 16 runs against the Big Red Machine of Cincinnati in leading the A’s to the first of three consecutive world titles

Few, other than Yankee fans, will recall Doyle, a reserve second baseman who hit .192 in 39 games in 1978. But when an injury to Willie Randolph forced Doyle into the lineup for the World Series against the Dodgers, Doyle seized the moment, going 6-for-17 as the Yankees captured the Series in six games.

From Ted Williams to Gil Hodges to Mike Schmidt, all were superstars of their era who suffered through slumps as the shadows lengthened in October.

Perhaps that’s why postseason heroes are often named Al Weis, Billy Hatcher and Adam Kennedy. Solid players, but those who delivered knockout blows in the postseason while more celebrated teammates struggled. They weren’t viewed as intently under the microscope as a noted game-breaker like Schmidt, got a few more juicy fastballs and took advantage of the muted spotlight.

Leading up to the 1980 postseason, Schmidt almost single-handedly won Philadelphia its division. Game after game, as the pressure mounted in late September, Schmidt delivered home runs and produced key RBIs on cue and continued his excellence in the field.

Then the calendar flipped to October.

“It shut off in the league championship series against Houston. I wasn’t a big factor,’’ Schmidt said during an interview several years ago when he managed the Clearwater Threshers.

Then the Phillies advanced to the World Series against Kansas City.

“I get a couple of hits the first game, I get relaxed and I became the MVP,’’ Schmidt said, laughing while shaking his head at one of sports continuing mysteries.

A Hall of Famer known as one of baseball’s most intense players, Schmidt admits to feeling the heat when postseason slumps mounted.   

“In 1983, I could’ve won the MVP of the League Championship Series because I had a good series,’’ Schmidt recalled. “Garry Maddox had a great series, but I had good enough numbers to be the MVP. Then in the World Series I went 1-for-20. So I had no consistency in the postseason, and the ability to handle the pressure of it was probably a factor. I probably tried too hard.

“It happens all the time to players. You start to grind that bat harder. Every at-bat is explained; every pitch becomes a bigger deal than it really is.”

Barry Bonds went through it in Pittsburgh, David Justice in Atlanta and Alex Rodriguez as well before breaking through with a monster postseason last year.

Another noted pinstriper who struggled at times in the postseason might surprise you.

The year Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in the sixth game of the 1977 World Series he was benched in the League Championship Series against Kansas City.

“Would anybody remember that?” Schmidt said, smiling. “All they remember is what he did in the World Series – Mr. October. Well, Mr. October was on the pine earlier in October.”

Schmidt said today’s players are less aware of the pressure because of the daily media exposure.

“It’s no big deal to them,” he said. “They accept failure a lot better. The big money, the high exposure, they’re used to it.”

The key to excelling in October, Schmidt said, is the time-worn phrase of treating postseason games like those in June.

“If you can get a bunch of guys in a pressure situation having fun, which sort of masks the whole pressure element, they just can go about the postseason like they do the regular season, with all the kidding and joking, they’ll be fine.

“Teams that are able to do that, that have been there, the pressure of winning is not that great.’’

Will the Rays shine?

So will the Rays handle the pressure and be the last team standing in October? In a season with no clearly dominant team in the American League, they have as good a shot as anyone.

Sure, they have flaws, but every postseason team does. Much has been made of the Rays possibly setting a team record for lowest average yet scoring the most runs in team history. Their offensive slumps can be maddening, but when you can pitch, play defense and run like the Rays, those elements alone should propel them to the World Series.

They’ve done more with less all season because they’ve made their hits count. And with a premium on pitching and low-run games in the postseason, their speed can manufacture enough runs to emerge victorious.

Unless Carlos Pena, Ben Zobrist, Jason Bartlett and Upton awake at the same time to join Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford, they don’t figure to romp through the playoffs unscathed. However, with David Price, Wade Davis, Matt Garza and any combination of Jeff Niemann and James Shields on the hill, they will be in every game where one key hit will be the difference. Then they can bring in Joaquin Benoit and Rafael Soriano to nail things down.

And don’t underestimate their defense. It gets taken for granted because they bring the leather and save runs every night. In the postseason that means preventing big innings and keeping runs off the board, which helps when the Rays slide into one of their inexplicable hitting funks.

Yes, the Yankees can bop with anyone. But tell me their pitching scares you once you get past C.C. Sabathia? Even Mariano Rivera appeared human while blowing several saves down the stretch.

Cliff Lee gives the Rangers a chance to get off to a good start in any series, but their rotation is shaky beyond that. Also, the Rays defeated him three times this season, so he’s no mystery to them. Also consider that MVP candidate Josh Hamilton is far from full strength with several broken ribs stemming from his aggressive play.

Minnesota wins much like the Rays, with solid starting pitching and excellent fundamentals. And you tip your cap to them because they won without closer Joe Nathan all season and having lost hard-hitting first baseman Justin Morneau to a concussion in July. But you’ll take the Rays starters over Francisco Liriano, Carl Pavano, Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey any day, any series.

If there’s a team built for a roll in October it’s Philadelphia. With Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels the Phils can deal three aces in any series. Combine that with their potent offense and postseason experience, and they should easily win the National League pennant.

The only club that could provide a challenge would be San Francisco, likewise because of its pitching. But like the Rays, the Giants struggle mightily to score runs, which will be their downfall. 

So in a Philly-Rays World Series, the result will be the same as 2008, only the Rays should win at least two games to keep it interesting. The Phils can go pitch for pitch with the Rays, and they should always be able to score one more run.

Either way, hold on to your BRayser caps, because there’s nothing like the excitement of postseason baseball, when each pitch, each play could produce an unexpected hero during an October to remember.

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