Column: Here’s the key player on every postseason team
The postseason tournament starts Tuesday, with 10 entrants. You might have heard of two of them: the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees.
“Do those teams get any coverage at all, nationally?” cracked the manager of one of the other eight qualifiers, Bud Black of the Colorado Rockies.
Why, yes, they do. On Sunday, the final day on the regular-season schedule, the Dodgers, Rockies, Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers all played games that could have decided division championships. The national broadcast featured – sigh – the Red Sox and the Yankees.
Dave Roberts gets it.
Roberts, the Dodgers’ manager, played for the Red Sox for three months in 2004. He memorably stole one base, with Boston one inning from getting swept by the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. The Red Sox won that series and the World Series too, for their first championship since 1918.
Fourteen years have come and gone. The Red Sox have won another two championships since then. And yet Roberts still hears about that stolen base.
“All the time,” he said Monday. “More than I hear about the Dodgers.”
And now, for the first time since that legendary 2004 series, the Red Sox and Yankees could meet in the postseason. Nirvana for television executives and East Coast supremacists could start Friday, when the Red Sox open the AL Division Series at Fenway Park.
The Yankees would be the opponent, but only if they beat the Oakland Athletics in Wednesday’s AL wild-card game.
Black put the Red Sox, Yankees, Dodgers and Cubs in a class with the Lakers, Boston Celtics, Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers.
“Historic franchises with great followings,” he said.
But you cannot grow the game unless you grow the following of all the teams, not just two of them, or four of them.
“I never want to discount our fans, or Brewers fans, or any other lesser-market types of situations,” Black said. “There are passionate fans with our teams too.”
Frankly, given the way a string of Oakland owners has flipped players and trashed the ballpark over the past couple of decades, it is no small wonder that the A’s boast some of the most passionate fans in the game. They deserve a postseason home game for the first time in five years, and their team deserves a chance at their first postseason series victory in 12 years.
Let’s go, A’s, even if fans outside the East Bay cannot name half their starting lineup.
In the meantime, one key player on every postseason team:
Dodgers: Kenley Jansen – This is his ninth season in the majors, and never has he posted an earned-run average so high (3.01) or given up so many home runs, including back-to-back shots in Monday’s division clincher. He has not thrown so many innings in five years, and he has not appeared sharp lately. The Houston Astros replaced their closer during their World Series run last October; might the Dodgers have to consider the same?
Braves: Charlie Culberson – This utility infielder immortalized himself in Dodgers lore, as he hit the walkoff home run in Vin Scully’s final home game. That was the only home run Culberson hit in two years with the Dodgers. He hit 12 for the Atlanta Braves this season. Of the 12 Braves with at least 100 at-bats, Culberson had a higher slugging percentage than anyone but MVP candidate Freddie Freeman and rookie of the year candidate Ronald Acuna. Shortstop Dansby Swanson has a torn hand ligament, so Culberson could start against the Dodgers.
Cubs: Jon Lester – The Cubs’ $155-million ace starts his third career winner-take-all game, after Game 7 of the 2008 ALCS for the Red Sox and the 2014 AL wild-card game for the A’s. His team lost both of those games. Lester, 34, posted a 6.46 ERA in July and a 5.81 ERA in August, followed by a 1.52 ERA in September. He struggles to throw to first base, which could be good news for these Rockies on Tuesday: Trevor Story (27 SB), Ian Desmond (20 SB) and Charlie Blackmon (12 SB).
Rockies: Kyle Freeland – The Rockies’ sophomore sensation has turned pitching logic on its mile-high head, posting a 2.40 ERA at Coors Field this season and a 3.23 ERA on the road. The good news for the Rockies: Freeland, their ace, is scheduled to start against Lester on Tuesday. The bad news: The game is at Wrigley Field, and Freeland is starting on short rest for what he said is the first time since college. In April, in his lone career appearance at Wrigley and facing Lester, Freeland lost 3-2.
Brewers: Christian Yelich – This will not be the last time this October you hear about how the Dodgers could have acquired Yelich, who grew up in L.A. The Brewers were willing to trade their top prospect to get Yelich; the Dodgers were not. The Miami Marlins thus got outfielder Lewis Brinson rather than outfielder Alex Verdugo. Brinson hit .199 for Miami. Verdugo is unlikely to make the Dodgers’ playoff roster. Yelich, the presumptive NL MVP, finished one home run and one run batted in shy of an NL triple crown.
A’s: Stephen Piscotty – In the kindest story last winter, the St. Louis Cardinals traded Piscotty to the A’s, his hometown team, so the slugging outfielder could be close to his dying mother. Gretchen Piscotty died of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in May, and her son has forged his finest season. He hit .160 in May, understandably, but he hit .310 in September, with a 1.049 OPS. He hit 27 home runs in all. The only AL right fielder to hit more: presumptive MVP Mookie Betts of the Red Sox.
Red Sox: David Price -- Clayton Kershaw can’t win as an October starter? That story line is overstated. David Price can’t win as an October starter? That is a fact: In nine postseason starts, he is 0-8 with a 5.59 ERA. The Red Sox need excellence from their top two starters, Chris Sale and then Price, at the risk of exposing a spotty bullpen. The top two pitching contracts in major league history: Price ($217 million) and Kershaw ($215 million); both can opt out this fall.
Yankees: Giancarlo Stanton – In eight years with the Marlins, Stanton never played for a team with a winning record. In his first year with the Yankees, he’s in the playoffs, the first October turn for the guy with baseball’s richest contract. Stanton won the NL MVP award last year in Miami, hitting 59 home runs with a 1.007 OPS. In New York, he hit 38 home runs with an .852 OPS, which did not rank among the top 25 in the major leagues.
Indians: Andrew Miller – The Indians flourished en route to the 2016 World Series with Miller as a multi-inning bullpen weapon. In the first two rounds that October, he pitched 11-2/3 scoreless innings, with 21 strikeouts. Miller had a 1.45 ERA that year and a 1.44 ERA last year, but the left-hander put up a 4.24 ERA this year, with three trips to the disabled list (hamstring, knee, shoulder). He’s pitching for Cleveland, and for any hope of a lucrative free-agent contract.
Astros: Martin Maldonado – Seldom does a particular player address a particular weakness as well as Maldonado does for the Houston Astros. The Astros were so confident that they could plan for October in July, when they rescued Maldonado from the Angels’ wreckage. The Astros looked ahead and saw that the Indians could await in the ALDS and the Red Sox in the ALCS. Cleveland leads the majors in stolen bases, Boston ranks third – and Maldonado has thrown out 49% of runners trying to steal.
Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin
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