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Baseball's most unlikely postseason heroes

September 24, 2018

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

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 2018 World Series provided a beautiful example. The Most Valuable Player of the Fall Classic ended up being 35-year-old first baseman Steve Pearce, who was acquired by the Red Sox in a late-June trade with the Blue Jays. Pearce launched three homers in the Series, including a pair in Boston's title-clinching 5-1 victory in Game 5.
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. More >
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. More >

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. More >
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. More >
Braves: Eddie Perez
When starting catcher Javy Lopez tore his ACL in July 1999, Perez, a career backup catcher, stepped into full-time duty and played a huge role in the Braves' most recent run to the World Series. In the NLCS against the Mets, Perez was 10-for-20 with two homers that were both game-winning hits, earning him NLCS MVP honors. More >
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. More >
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. More >

Cubs: Randall Simon
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. More >
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 they could, in fact, go toe-to-toe with the vaunted Yanks. More >

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. More >
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 won World Series MVP. More >
Indians: 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. More >
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 the Indians, 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. More >
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. More >

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. More >
Nationals: Jose Lobaton
Lobaton probably shouldn't even have been playing in Game 2 of the 2016 NLDS. After starting catcher Wilson Ramos tore his ACL in September, Lobaton was part of a platoon behind the plate, but he wasn't supposed to start against left-handers, in part due to an ankle injury that bothered him when swinging right-handed. But he got the nod against Rich Hill due to good career numbers against the southpaw, and he rewarded manager Dusty Baker with a clutch three-run homer that was the difference in a Nationals victory. More >

Orioles: Delmon Young
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 Caleb Joseph, who was in the on-deck circle. More >
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. More >
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. More >
Pirates: John Holdzkom
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. More >

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 Neftali Feliz upon Texas clinching the 2010 ALCS. Molina was a steadying presence who brought out the best in a young and inexperienced pitching staff. More >
Rays: Dan Johnson
Johnson cemented his place in Rays history with some clutch home runs in pivotal matchups as part of Tampa Bay's playoff runs in 2008 and '11. In '08, with the Rays surging out of nowhere to win the AL East crown, he hit a homer off Jonathan Papelbon on Sept. 9 to tie the Red Sox in the ninth and propel Tampa Bay to a critical win. And, of course, in the famed Game 162 in 2011, the Rays were down to their last out before Johnson homered to tie it and Evan Longoria eventually walked off into the playoffs in the 11th. More >

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 Most Valuable Player Award. The first homer was a two-run shot off Clayton Kershaw 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 Pedro Baez. 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. More >
Reds: Billy Bates
The 5-foot-7, 155-pound Bates was on the Reds' 1990 posteason 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 thereafter. More >
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 Kyle Hendricks to deliver the Rockies' first playoff victory since 2009 and send them on to the Division Series to face the Brewers. More >
Royals: Christopher Young
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. More >

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. More >
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. More >

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. More >
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. More >