When Unheralded Journeymen Become Playoff Heroes
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the MLB playoffs’ best attribute is equal opportunity.
The World Series wasted no time flaunting a few of baseball’s brightest stars. The sport’s best young shortstop, Francisco Lindor, went 3–4 with a stolen base in Game 1 as his teammate, Indians ace Corey Kluber, set a World Series record by striking out eight Cubs batters in the first three frames. Cleveland dominated the opener, but the Cubs also captivated viewers, as phenom slugger Kyle Schwarber returned from injury for his first appearance since April 7. Chicago’s postseason career home run leader doubled for his first hit of the season.
The aforementioned men are familiar faces to most sports fans. But what makes the MLB postseason so special is the near-guaranteed reveal of unexpected thrills. The 162-game regular season separates the top-shelf talent from organizational inventory. In a best-of-seven playoff series, any player can seize the moment. Game 1 got the ball rolling here, too, with a breakout performance from Cleveland’s fill-in catcher Roberto Perez. Perez, who hit .183 with three homers in 61 games this year, never had a multi-home-run game — not even in the minors. On Tuesday, Perez went 2–4 with two homers and four RBI. Baseball is a funny game.
Players who “maintain composure in big moments” have the best chance of breaking out.
As Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz tells OZY, pitchers “don’t want to let the obvious great hitters beat them in the World Series. That provides opportunities for the lesser-known players to become heroes.” Fourteen-time All-Star Alex Rodriguez concurs, noting that players who “maintain composure in big moments” have the best chance of breaking out. Because we can’t predict the future without first knowing the past, here’s a look back at several shocking playoff performers who forever altered their major-league legacy.
Bucky Dent — New York Yankees, 1978
Known for his middle infield defensive prowess, Dent hit just .243 with only five home runs in 1978. In the ALCS tie-breaker against the rival Boston Red Sox, Dent hit a three-run home run (one of only 40 in his 12-year career) to clinch a spot in the World Series. Dent stayed hot in the championship series, hitting .417 while en route to World Series MVP honors.
Francisco Cabrera — Braves, 1992, and Ed Sprague — Blue Jays, 1992
October baseball fans were treated to two unlikely heroes in 1992. In the NLCS, Francisco Cabrera delivered the biggest hit of his short-lived career. Despite registering a measly 10 at-bats the entire ’92 season, manager Bobby Cox called upon Cabrera to pinch hit in the biggest moment imaginable: bases loaded, down by one, two outs, bottom of the ninth, Game 7. Cabrera shot a single to left field, defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates and sending Atlanta to the World Series. A year later, at age 26, Cabrera was out of baseball.
The Braves moved on to face the Toronto Blue Jays, no small task — in part because of the play of journeyman Ed Sprague. Only slightly more experienced than Cabrera, Sprague entered the playoffs hitting .234 in 22 regular-season games. Atlanta won Game 1 and was leading 4–3 in Game 2, two outs away from a commanding series lead. That changed when Sprague launched a two-run homer to tie the series 1–1. Toronto went on to win its first World Series.
Geoff Blum — Chicago White Sox, 2005
Blum was a solid utility infielder, but after being traded to the White Sox in 2005 he disappointed, hitting .200 in 31 games. Due to his slump, Blum earned just one at-bat in the 2005 World Series: a line drive go-ahead home run in the 14th inning of Game 3. Blum’s shot put Chicago up 3–0 in the series, and the White Sox completed the sweep of the Houston Astros a day later.
Daniel Murphy — New York Mets, 2015
The most impressive postseason hitting heroics appeared in Queens last season. Through seven major-league seasons, Daniel Murphy established himself as a solid hitter (.292 career BA) with occasional home-run pop (62 career HRs). Then, in the playoffs, Murphy went berserk. Through the NLDS and NLCS, Murphy became the first player to hit a homer in six consecutive playoff games and the second player in history to have a hit, a run and an RBI in seven straight postseason games. In the NLCS, Murphy hit .529 with four homers and was named MVP. Two months later, he signed a $37.5 million contract with the Washington Nationals.