Baseball's most unlikely postseason heroes

October 15th, 2022

What do all playoff teams in history have in common? Their rosters are stacked with recognizable star players who deservedly receive most of the credit for everything good that happened to their clubs both in October and in the weeks leading up to it.

But take a closer look -- for every handful of All-Star-caliber players, there's at least one lesser-known contributor whose unexpected performance ended up being a difference-maker.

The latest example? The Padres' Trent Grisham, who launched his third home run of the postseason in Game 3 of the National League Division Series against the Dodgers on Friday night.

Unsung heroes don't pop up on every postseason roster every year, but all teams can point to at least one in their history, including this year's pool of postseason participants:

Angels: Adam Kennedy

The Angels needed one more win against the Twins in the 2002 American League Championship Series to clinch the first pennant in team history, and their heroics in the clincher came from a rather unlikely source. Kennedy, the team's No. 9 hitter, was eighth on the Halos with seven regular-season homers, but he hit three long balls in ALCS Game 5 in a 13-5 rout.

Astros: Brandon Backe

It was the final day of the 2004 regular season, the red-hot Astros needed just one more win to clinch the NL Wild Card, and having Roger Clemens slated to make the start likely helped Houston feel quite good about its chances. But Clemens fell ill, and the Astros had to turn to Backe, a converted outfielder, who promptly pitched them to the win. He earned his chances to start in the postseason, and in NLCS Game 5, he pitched the game of his life against the Cardinals, throwing eight innings to cement his legacy.

Athletics: Howard Ehmke

As the story goes, when Ehmke, a washed-up spot starter, was called into manager Connie Mack's office in August 1924, he was expecting to be notified of his release. But instead, the two made a deal: Ehmke would scout the Cubs while resting his sore arm for the rest of the regular season, and Mack would give him the start in Game 1 of the World Series. Well, he got that start and he struck out a then-World Series record 13 batters against a lineup featuring future Hall of Famers Rogers Hornsby, Hack Wilson and Kiki Cuyler.

Blue Jays: Chris Colabello

Colabello's brief tenure in Toronto was highlighted by playing a major role in helping the Blue Jays snap their 22-year playoff drought in 2015. An offseason waiver claim, he hit .321/.367/.520 in 101 games in the regular season and played a crucial role in Toronto's playoff run.

Braves: Eddie Rosario

Much like another Eddie who was an unlikely hero in Braves postseason lore -- Eddie Perez, who was named the 1999 NLCS MVP against the Mets -- Rosario hit .560 with a double, a triple and three homers to take home NLCS MVP honors in 2021, leading Atlanta to its first World Series appearance since that 1999 campaign. Rosario was a Trade Deadline acquisition along with fellow outfielders Joc Pederson and Jorge Soler, who would be named World Series MVP in the Braves' six-game win over the Astros.

Brewers: Ned Yost

Long before he was a manager, Yost was a backup catcher on the Brewers who saw _very _sporadic playing time, to the point where he didn't even buy more of his own bats -- he'd just grab an available one. On Sept. 29, 1982, using teammate Charlie Moore's bat for his first plate appearance in 18 days, he launched a go-ahead three-run homer over the Green Monster to give Milwaukee a huge win in its quest for the AL East crown. 

Cardinals: Jeff Suppan

Suppan was at his best for the Cardinals on the biggest stages. Two years after outdueling Roger Clemens to clinch the NL pennant, Suppan was huge for the Cards in their 2006 postseason run, winning NLCS MVP honors for his eight shutout innings and homer in Game 3 against the Mets before he escaped a bases-loaded jam in the sixth inning of Game 7 as part of seven strong innings for the eventual World Series champions.

Cubs:

The Cubs needed a left-handed bat who could play first base for their stretch run in 2003. In stepped Simon, picked up in an August trade with the Pirates to supplement the splashy acquisitions of Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton. Simon hit .317 with runners in scoring position and gave the Cubs a loose, upbeat clubhouse presence, but Chicago ultimately dropped the NLCS to the Marlins in seven games.

D-backs: Craig Counsell

Everyone remembers Luis Gonzalez's Game 7 walk-off against Mariano Rivera and the Yankees in the 2001 World Series. But for then-Arizona manager Bob Brenly, Counsell's homer in Game 1 was right up there in importance as well. Counsell, the NLCS MVP, teed off against Mike Mussina in the first inning, giving a surge of confidence to his young organization and signaling that the D-backs could, in fact, go toe-to-toe with the vaunted Yanks.

Dodgers: Mickey Hatcher

Remember Kirk Gibson's hobbled walk-off homer in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series? Hatcher was the guy that was starting at first in place of the injured Gibson, and he made the most of his opportunity, leading the club with five runs and five RBIs during the World Series, homering in Games 1 and 5, and hitting safely in each of the Dodgers' final eight postseason games.

Guardians: Jaret Wright

Wright's rookie-season heroics have endured in Cleveland lore for two decades. In 1997, the then-21-year-old hurler helped the Tribe clinch a third straight AL Central title and went 3-0 in October, including a win in Game 4 of the World Series.

Giants: Edgar Renteria

The veteran Renteria gathered the Giants' position players for an emotional speech late on Sept. 26, 2010, tearfully encouraging his teammates for a turnaround to the team's shaky offense -- he knew his career was in its final stages, and he wanted to go out a champion. It was a turning point. San Francisco's bats woke up, and Renteria himself hit .412 with six runs and six RBIs in the World Series, with the game-winning homer in the decisive Game 5. He was named World Series MVP.

Mariners: Bob Wolcott

Wolcott didn't make his Major League debut until mid-August of the Mariners' memorable 1995 season, and he we wasn't even on the roster for the ALDS against the Yankees. But the day before Game 1 of the ALCS against Cleveland, the 22-year-old rookie got the call that he'd be starting, and he allowed two runs in seven innings to push Seattle to a series-opening win.

Marlins: Alex Gonzalez

The Marlins saw a 3-1 lead disappear in Game 4 of the 2003 World Series, and as they remained tied with the Yankees into the 12th inning, manager Jack McKeon asked his dugout for a big hit. Little did he know it would come from Gonzalez, a glove-first shortstop mired in a deep postseason slump. His walk-off shot carried just over a low section of the left-field wall to even the series at 2-2.

Mets: Donn Clendenon

After Clendenon was acquired in June 1969, his right-handed power bat and veteran leadership helped the "Miracle Mets" complete their memorable comeback. Despite not playing against the Braves in the NLCS, Clendenon provided an MVP effort in the Fall Classic against Baltimore, hitting tiebreaking homers in Games 2 and 4 and another long ball in the decisive Game 5.

Nationals: Howie Kendrick

When the Nationals won the first World Series title in franchise history in 2019, Kendrick was a big reason why. The veteran infielder delivered one of the biggest hits of that postseason for Washington in the NLDS, belting a 10th-inning grand slam to lift the Nats over the favored Dodgers in Game 5. Kendrick then hit .333 to take home NLCS MVP honors in Washington's sweep of the Cardinals, delivering three doubles and three RBIs in an 8-1 victory in Game 3. He also came through in the clutch again with a go-ahead two-run homer in the seventh inning of World Series Game 7 against the Astros.

Orioles:

Young fueled the underdog Orioles' Game 2 victory in the 2014 ALDS with a pinch-hit three-run double that put Baltimore ahead, 7-6, at Camden Yards. "It's still the loudest roar I think I've ever heard in real life," said catcher , who was in the on-deck circle.

Padres: Sterling Hitchcock

Hitchcock didn't start the 1998 season in the rotation for the star-studded Padres. But he ended the season by outdueling Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and David Cone in the playoffs. Hitchcock struck out 27 batters in two NLDS starts, beat Maddux in Game 3 of the NLCS, then struck out eight and had a critical hit in the clinching Game 6 before San Diego was swept by New York in the World Series.

Phillies: Eric Bruntlett

Bruntlett is most widely recognized for his unassisted triple play, but he instead likes to draw attention to the role he played in the Phillies' 2008 World Series championship against Tampa Bay. The utility man scored two pivotal runs late in the series, including a walk-off run on a fielder's choice in Game 3 and the go-ahead run in the Game 5 clincher.

Pirates:

Everything happened really quickly for "Big John" Holdzkom during the 2014 season. In June, he was pitching for an independent league team in Amarillo, Texas. A little over two months later, after being spotted by a scout and pitching well at two levels of the Minor Leagues, Holdzkom was called up by the Pirates. He made eight scoreless appearances before he gave up a run and stabilized the Bucs' bullpen down the stretch, eventually pitching in their NL Wild Card Game loss to the Giants.

Rangers: Bengie Molina

Molina's iconic moment is enshrined with a statue outside the Texas Live! entertainment complex that celebrates the Rangers' first trip to the World Series. It depicts Molina embracing reliever upon Texas clinching the 2010 ALCS. Molina was a steadying presence who brought out the best in a young and inexperienced pitching staff.

Rays: Mike Brosseau

Brosseau, whom the Rays signed as an undrafted free agent in 2016, appeared in 36 games for Tampa Bay in the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, and he did well, posting a .936 OPS in a small sample of plate appearances. But the infielder made a name for himself that postseason, when he launched one of the most famous home runs in franchise history, taking none other than flame-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman deep for a walk-off homer in Game 5 of the ALDS against the Yankees, sending the Rays to the ALCS.

Red Sox: Steve Pearce

Pearce launched a pair of home runs in Boston's title-clinching victory over the Dodgers in Game 5 of the 2018 World Series, securing the World Series MVP Award. The first homer was a two-run shot off to give the Red Sox an early lead. He then belted another home run in the eighth, this one a solo shot off Dodgers reliever . It was his third home run in two days, after he came through with a game-tying blast in Game 4 before breaking the game open on a bases-clearing double in the ninth. Boston acquired Pearce in a trade with Toronto in late June, and he wound up hitting .289 with a pair of doubles and four homers in the postseason. That included a .333 performance (4-for-12) with a double and three homers in the World Series.

Reds: Billy Bates

The 5-foot-7, 155-pound Bates was on the Reds' 1990 postseason roster mainly for his speed, so he was quite surprised when he was summoned to pinch-hit against future Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley in the 10th inning of Game 2 of the World Series. He hit an infield single -- his only hit in a Cincinnati uniform -- and later came around to score on Joe Oliver's walk-off single. The Reds went on to win the World Series, and Bates never again played in the Major Leagues.

Rockies: Tony Wolters

The Rockies' biggest postseason hit of the decade came off the bat of a player from the very end of their bench. In the 13th inning of a nailbiter of a 2018 NL Wild Card Game, with Colorado having been held scoreless by the Cubs for the last 11 innings, Wolters recreated the old "Rocktober" magic. The reserve catcher, who'd been double-switched into the game in the 12th, knocked a two-out, two-strike tiebreaking hit up the middle off Chicago's to deliver the Rockies' first playoff victory since 2009 and send them on to the Division Series to face the Brewers.

Royals:

Young wasn't even signed until a few weeks before the season began, but had a major impact on the Royals' 2015 championship squad. Young posted a 2.87 ERA through 15 2/3 innings in the playoffs, including a win in relief in Game 1 of the World Series.

Tigers: Mickey Stanley

Hall of Famer Al Kaline's return from injury in 1968 created a logjam in the Tigers' lineup, but Stanley's successful move from the outfield to shortstop allowed Detroit to get Kaline's bat in the lineup for its World Series run.

Twins: Gene Larkin

Mostly a role player throughout his seven years with the Twins, Larkin's hit off the bench in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series against the Braves clinched the franchise's most recent title and solidified his place in Minnesota lore. "Obviously, it was a thrill of a lifetime and something you dream about when you first pick up a ball in the backyard," Larkin said.

White Sox: Geoff Blum

Blum needed only one at-bat in the 2005 World Series against Houston to become a postseason hero. He clubbed the game-winning home run to right field in Game 3 to put the White Sox one step closer to a sweep and their first championship in 88 years.

Yankees: Shane Spencer

The Yankees' storied history is littered with Hall of Famers and some of the game's iconic stars, but one of the most unexpected heroes emerged in 1998, when Spencer was dubbed "the home run dispenser" by announcer John Sterling. Spencer, a rookie, went deep 10 times in a span of 54 plate appearances, including three grand slams, to end the season and added two more long balls in the ALDS.