Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Top 10 Most Unlikely Playoff Heroes in MLB History

It seems that every year, a new postseason hero comes out of nowhere and shocks the baseball world with a timely performance to win a game or two for their team. Last year it was Cody Ross, a decent, but nondescript outfielder who exploded on the scene, hitting five home runs in the playoffs and winning the NLCS MVP. Alas, Ross didn't quite make this list, but here are ten guys that may not have had the best seasons or careers, but for one fleeting moment shined when the spotlight was the brightest.

10. Don Larsen

Since the start of the World Series, only one man has ever pitched a perfect game. That man was not an all-time great like Whitey Ford or Walter Johnson, but instead, it was accomplished by a man that put up a sterling win loss record of 3-21 just two seasons before. Despite a poor start in Game 2 of the 1956 World Series, the Yankees went with Larsen against the Brooklyn Dodgers with the series tied at two games apiece. Facing a lineup that included four future Hall of Famers and seven players who played in at least one All-Star game, Larsen went through them like a tank goes through tissue paper. Larsen was in the zone that day, running up only one count to three balls and striking out seven batters. The Dodgers of Jackie, Duke, Hodges, and Pee Wee were befuddled by a man who split time between the bullpen and the rotation during the 1956 season (although to be fair, Larsen wasn't too bad that year, going 11-5 with a 3.26 ERA). Even though Larsen finished his career with a losing record (81-91), he can lay claim to be the only man to be perfect in a World Series game.

9. Bobby Richardson

Even though Richardson played in eight All-Star games and led the AL in hits in 1962, he was never exactly an offensive star for the Yankees, as his solid glovework usually carried his lackluster bat. In 1960, Richardson hit for an uninspiring line of .252/.303/.298 during the regular season, but during the World Series, Richardson morphed into his generation's Rogers Hornsby. During the seven game series against the Pirates, Richardson racked up 11 hits, five for extra bases, and set a World Series record that still stands with 12 RBIs, nearly half the total he put up during the regular season (26 RBIs). Despite his team losing the World Series, Richardson was named the World Series MVP, the only player from a losing team to win that award. In 1961, Richardson wasn't great during the regular season (.261/.295/.316), but once again saved his best work for the World Series, collecting 9 hits during the five game series against the Reds. Richardson wasn't so great in the 1962 or 1963 World Series, but in 1964 Richardson set another Series record with 13 hits against the St. Louis Cardinals. For his World Series career, Richardson hit .305/.331/.405, well above his career averages of .266/.299/.335. 

8. Sterling Hitchcock

Hitchcock was a decent lefthanded starter whose career was ultimately derailed by arm injuries, but in the 1998 playoffs, Hitchcock pitched the best baseball of his career. During the 1998 season, Hitchcock was the Padres' fourth starter, pitching well (3.93 ERA, 158 SO) but he also had a propensity to give up the long ball (29 Homers allowed). In the playoffs, Bochy moved Hitchcock ahead of Joey Hamilton in the rotation, and the move paid off big. In the NLDS against the Houston Astros, Hitchcock held the Astors to three hits in six innings, struck out 11 batters, and the Padres would win the game and the series, 3-1. Against the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS, Hitchcock made the powerful Braves lineup look bad. In game 3, Hitchcock pitched five innings, and despite five walks, held the Braves to three hits and one run as the Padres won 4-1. In game 6, with a trip to the World Series on the line, Hitchcock again stymied the Braves, pitching five shutout innings with eight strikeouts as the Padres clinched the N.L. Pennant. Hitchcock was named the NLCS MVP, and even though his team lost in four games to the Yankees in the World Series, Hitchcock turned in another fine performance in game 3, allowing one earned run in six innings and leaving the game with a 3-1 lead. Overall, Hitchcock allowed three earned runs in 22 innings during the 1998 season, striking out 32 batters. Not bad for a guy with a career record of 74-76 and an ERA of 4.80.

7. Gene Tenace

Although Tenace would have a few solid seasons with the Oakland A's and the San Diego Padres, he was a little regarded backup catcher heading into the 1972 World Series. Even though he started all five game in the ALCS that year, Tenace's 1 hit in 17 at-bats hardly inspired fear in the hearts of the Cincinnati Reds or their fans. But in game 1, Tenace took center stage, hitting a home run in his first two World Series at bats and drove in all three runs in the A's Game 1 victory. In game 4, Tenace broke a scoreless tie with a solo homer in the fifth inning, and after a ninth inning single, would score the winning run in a 3-2 victory for Oakland. Tenace homered again in game 5, giving him four for the series, and in game 7, Tenace drove in 2 of Oakland's three runs in a 3-2 victory. For the series, Tenace hit .348, with four home runs and nine RBIs, and was named the most valuable player of the 1972 World Series.

6. Eddie Perez

Before the 1999 season, Perez was best known as Greg Maddux's personal catcher. But when Javy Lopez went down with an injury in late July, it was up to Perez to step in and assume the starting catching role. His numbers that season (.249/.299/.372) weren't great, but Perez was a solid defender and the Braves still made the postseason. In the 1999 NLCS against the New York Mets, Perez picked a great time to get hot. In game 1, Perez had two hits, including a homer that proved to be the winning run in a 4-2 victory. Perez followed with another home run, this time a two-run shot, that broke a 2-2 tie and propelled the Braves to a 4-3 victory. Perez had two more two hit games in games 3 and 5, and in game 6, Perez had another two hits, including a two run single, in the Braves eventual 10-9 victory. In 20 at bats during the NLCS, Perez had 10 hits, two homers, and five RBIs, making him the MVP of the NLCS. In the World Series, Perez and his Braves fell victim to a Yankees sweep, but that doesn't take away from Perez's magnificent performance in the NLCS. Today, Perez is a coach for the same team he once carried to the World Series.

5. Billy Hatcher

Hatcher was a speedy outfielder with some ability, although he was really an average player during his 12 year career. In the postseason, however, Hatcher seemed to come alive. In the 1986 NLCS against the New York Mets, Hatcher played well, hitting .280, stealing three bases, and hitting a game tying home run in the bottom of the 14th inning in game six, then driving in another run in the 16th before the Astros finally fell to the Mets. Before the 1990 season, Hatcher was traded to the Cincinnati Reds, and while his hitting wasn't great (.276/.321/.384), he did lead the team with 30 stolen bases. In the NLCS against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Hatcher went 4-16 in the series, including a homer in game 2, as the Reds went on to beat the Pirates in 6. Hatcher saved his best for the World Series against the Oakland A's, where he went on a tear that has never been duplicated in the history of the World Series. In four games, Hatcher had nine hits in 12 at-bats, giving him a .750 average. Among those nine hits included a key triple in the bottom of the eighth inning of game 2, which resulted in Hatcher scoring the tying run in what would eventually be a 5-4 Reds victory. Hatcher also had four doubles, as the Reds swept the A's in four straight. Remarkably, despite setting a World Series record for highest batting average, Hatcher was not named the MVP, as Jose Rijo was given the award for two excellent performances in games 1 and 4 of the series. Today, Hatcher is back in the Reds organization, serving as their first base coach.

4. Dusty Rhodes

Rhodes may have been a one-year wonder, but it was quite a year. In 1954, Rhodes was a backup outfielder for the Giants, providing the team with left-handed pop off the bench. In his previous two seasons, Rhodes hit 21 home runs, but his average of .242 wasn't anything to write home about. In 1954, Rhodes had a season to write home and everyone else he knew about. In 186 plate appearances that year, Rhodes hit .341/.410/.695, with 15 home runs and 50 RBIs. His exploits continued in the World Series against the heavily favored Cleveland Indians. In game 1, Rhodes made history, becoming the first player to hit a walk-off home run in extra innings of a World Series game, doing so in the 10th innings off of Bob Lemon. In game 2, Rhodes came off the bench in fifth inning, drove in the tying run with a single, then added a home run in the seventh innings. In game 3, Rhodes went 2-3 with two RBIs. During the Giants four game sweep, Rhodes had six at bats, four hits, two home runs, and seven RBIs, not too bad for a player that didn't start a game in the Series.

3. Mark Lemke

As a hitter, Mark Lemke made Bobby Richardson look like Ryne Sandberg, posting a career batting line of .246/.317/.324. In the 1991 World Series though, Lemke's bat came alive. In game 3, Lemke went 2-5, with his second hit winning the game for the Braves in the bottom of the 12th inning. The next game, Lemke got three hits, including a double and a 9th inning triple. Lemke would score the winning run that night on a sacrifice fly from Jerry Williard. In game 5, Lemke went 2-4 with three RBIs in a 14-5 Braves rout. Even though the Braves would fall to the Twins in seven games that year, Lemke emerged as a hitting star, going 10-26 in the series for a .417 average.Among those 10 hits included three triples. Lemke hit .333 in the 1992 NLCS against the Pittsburgh Pirates, but didn't repeat his success in the 1991 World Series until the 1996 NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals. After four hits in the first four games, Lemke caught fire in game 5, going four for five in a 14-0 Braves rout. The next game, Lemke had two more hits and an RBI in a 3-0 Braves victory, and in game 7, Lemke added two more hits as the Braves pounded the Cardinals 15-0.  For the series, Lemke hit .444 (12-27) with four runs, a homer, and five RBIs. Alas, Lemke came back down to Earth in the World Series, as the Yankees beat the Braves in six games.

2. Buddy Biancalana

Biancalana was a good-field/no-hit shortstop whose sole claim to fame before the 1985 playoffs was the 'Biancalana hit-meter' on the David Letterman show, tracking Biancalana's "pursuit" of the all-time hit record. Despite a line of .188/.277/.261 during the 1985 season, Royals manager Dick Howser made Biancalana his starting shortstop throughout the 1985 postseason. In the ALCS, Biancalana hit a mere .222, but he did have a clutch double in game 6 and played errorless baseball at shortstop. In the World Series, the light hitting Biancalana became a thorn in the Cardinals' side. In game 3, Biancalana had two hits, scoring one run and driving in another as the Royals won 6-1. In game 5, Biancalana got another two hits and a walk, again scoring a run and driving in another as the Royals won 6-1. Biancalana added another hit in game 6, and once again played errorless defense for the Royals in their eventual series victory. Overall, Biancalana hit .278, with 5 walks and two RBIs. Not the best numbers ever, but considering the source, it was quite the achievement.

1. (tie) Brian Doyle/Bucky Dent

The 1978 Yankees were a team full of stars such as Reggie Jackson, Goose Gossage, Graig Nettles, and Thurman Munson. So naturally, the key players of their World Series run would be a light hitting shortstop and a backup second baseman who finished his career hitting .161/.201/.191. It all started in Boston during the one game playoff to determine the winner of the AL East. With the Yankees down 2-0 in the seventh and two men on, Dent, who had hit only four home runs coming into this game, took a Mike Torrez fastball and slammed it over the Green Monster, giving the Yankees a lead that they wouldn't relinquish. While neither Dent or Doyle were key contributors in the ALCS, that would not be the case in the 1978 World Series. An injury to Willie Randolph forced the Yankees to play Doyle at second base and hope for the best. Well, they got the best ball of Doyle's career, as he hit .438 (7-16) in the Series, with six hits coming in the Yankees final two games. Doyle may have been the Series MVP were it not for Dent, who hit .417 with seven RBIs, including three in the clincher in game 6. In a lineup full of stars, it was the role players that became the heroes for the 1978 Yankees.

Well, that's the list. I'm sure I left somebody out, so if you're favorite unlikely playoff hero was not on the list, then feel free to leave a comment. Also, if you have an idea for a future review, then send me an e-mail at kthec2001@gmail.com.