Wait ... who? Unlikely World Series heroes

November 6th, 2021

Part of the beauty of October baseball is that anyone can be a World Series hero, from future Hall of Famers to the 25th man on the roster. Here's a look at some of the most unlikely players who left big marks on the Fall Classic in recent history. Players who won World Series MVP are noted with an asterisk.

Brett Phillips, OF, 2020 Rays
When Phillips stepped to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 4 of the World Series against the Dodgers, the stakes hardly could have been higher. The Rays trailed 2-1 in the series and 7-6 in the game, with two outs and runners on first and second. As for Phillips, he had an excuse to be rusty. The backup outfielder had not stepped to the plate since Game 3 of the American League Division Series 17 days earlier and was 0-for-2 during the Rays' entire postseason run. In fact, Phillips had recorded all of 10 MLB hits in 2020 -- 3 since Tampa Bay acquired him from Kansas City in an Aug. 27 trade. But just one day before the one-month anniversary of his most recent knock, Phillips got his bat on a 1-2 cutter from Kenley Jansen and hit a soft liner to center for a single. That's when things really got wild, as errors by center fielder Chris Taylor and catcher Will Smith allowed Randy Arozarena to score from first with the walk-off run, despite falling down between third and home.

Jose Urquidy, SP, 2019 Astros
Urquidy had never pitched above Class A before the 2019 season. He didn't make his big league debut until July. But the 24-year-old pitched his way onto the Astros' postseason roster, and on the biggest stage of all, he delivered a gem. Starting Game 4 of the World Series -- what was essentially supposed to be a bullpen game for Houston -- Urquidy pitched five scoreless innings of two-hit baseball and outdueled the Nationals' Patrick Corbin in Washington. The Astros evened the series at two games apiece, and Urquidy became just the second Mexican-born starting pitcher to earn a win in the Fall Classic after Fernando Valenzuela.

Steve Pearce, 1B, 2018 Red Sox
Pearce launched a pair of home runs in Boston's title-clinching victory over the Dodgers in Game 5, securing the World Series MVP 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 off reliever Pedro Báez. That was his third home run in two days -- Pearce 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 .333 (4-for-12) with a double and three homers in the World Series. He's only the second player to win a World Series MVP Award after being acquired midseason, joining 1969 World Series MVP Donn Clendenon, who was traded by the Expos to the Mets in June of that year.

Christian Colón, INF, 2015 Royals
Colón only got one Fall Classic at-bat, but what an at-bat. Called into pinch-hitting duties in the top of the 12th inning of Game 5 against the Mets, Colón helped the Royals clinch their first World Series championship in 30 years. In his first appearance of the postseason, taking his first at-bat in nearly a month, the light-hitting infielder laced a tiebreaking single to left field off Addison Reed. It held up as the World Series-winning hit. This wasn't the only time Colón was an unlikely playoff hero, either -- in 2014, he had an equally clutch game-tying pinch-hit infield single and scored the walk-off run against the A's in the 12th inning of an instant-classic AL Wild Card Game.

David Freese, 3B, 2011 Cardinals
Freese wasn't yet fully established as an everyday player in 2011, his third season in the Majors, but he started every playoff game for the Cardinals -- changing the course of the World Series and cementing his place in baseball lore in the process. In Game 6, with the Rangers a strike away from a championship in the bottom of the ninth, Freese tagged Texas closer Neftalí Feliz for a game-tying triple that sent the game to extra innings. Then he led off the bottom of the 11th with a walk-off homer that sent the series to Game 7. In that Game 7, Freese had a two-run double and a pair of walks, the Cards won the series and Freese was crowned World Series MVP.

Carlos Ruiz, C, 2008 Phillies
Though he was one of the game's more respected backstops in his prime for the Phillies, Ruiz struggled mightily at the plate in 2008, his second full season in the Major Leagues, slashing a meager .219/.320/.300 while splitting time behind the plate with veteran Chris Coste. But Ruiz played a pivotal role in the Phils' postseason success, hitting .313 with a pair of multihit games in the NLCS before delivering the heroics in Game 3 of the World Series against the Rays. Ruiz knocked the only walk-off infield single in World Series history in that game. He hit safely in the last four games of the World Series and guided the Phillies' pitching staff to a 2.86 ERA in the Fall Classic.

David Eckstein, SS, 2006 Cardinals
On a team with Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds and Chris Carpenter, the light-hitting infielder Eckstein claimed World Series MVP honors. Despite collecting only 21 extra-base hits in 500 at-bats during the regular season, Eckstein helped push the Cardinals past the Tigers in Game 4 with three key doubles in a 4-for-5 performance. He hit an RBI double in the third to drive in St. Louis' first run, then doubled to lead off the seventh before scoring the tying run. In the eighth, with the game knotted 4-4, Eckstein came through one more time off reliever Joel Zumaya with a go-ahead, two-out RBI double that pushed the Cards to a 3-1 series lead.

Scott Podsednik, LF, 2005 White Sox
Despite his speed (he led the NL with 70 steals in 2004), Podsednik only hit one triple during the 2005 regular season for the White Sox. And though he'd displayed a bit of a power stroke in two seasons with the Brewers, he didn't muster a single homer before the playoffs began. But a different Podsednik emerged in the World Series against the Astros. After driving in a key insurance run in Game 1 with an eighth-inning RBI triple, he knocked a walk-off homer in Game 2 off Astros closer Brad Lidge, who had 42 saves in the regular season. Podsednik added another triple in Game 4 and had the second-most hits on the White Sox during their World Series sweep.

Francisco Rodríguez, RP, 2002 Angels
It's not even fair to call the 20-year-old K-Rod of 2002 a "rookie" -- he didn't even make his Major League debut until Sept. 18 due to a rash of injuries to the Angels' bullpen. But in his five regular-season appearances, Rodríguez showed manager Mike Scioscia that his electric right arm could be a critical factor in the playoffs, and Scioscia didn't hesitate to use his newfound weapon early and often in October. Rodríguez struck out 15 in 10 innings over seven appearances in the ALDS and ALCS before throwing 8 2/3 innings in four World Series outings, including three perfect innings in Game 2 and a scoreless eighth in Game 7, when he struck out the side to set up closer Troy Percival and the only championship in Angels history.

Luis Sojo, 2B, 2000 Yankees
The turn-of-the-millennium Yankees dynasty completed its championship three-peat with a five-game triumph over the Mets in 2000, and in the clinching Game 5, it was the journeyman infielder Sojo who sealed the Subway Series win for the Yanks. After being double-switched in during the eighth inning to hit in Andy Pettitte's lineup spot, Sojo brought in Jorge Posada with the Series-winning run in the top of the ninth.

Pat Borders, C, 1992 Blue Jays
It's hard to fathom that a 1992 Blue Jays team loaded with stars like Roberto Alomar, Joe Carter, John Olerud, Devon White and Dave Winfield would combine to hit just .230 in a World Series. But Toronto's offense scuffled against the Braves' pitching staff and likely wouldn't have pulled out the franchise's first title without unlikely contributions from its catcher. Borders, a .242 hitter during the regular season, racked up a team-best nine hits and hit .450 en route to World Series MVP honors. He went on to play for nine other franchises in a 10-year span after leaving Toronto in the winter of '94.

Mickey Hatcher, LF, 1988 Dodgers
Of course, this World Series is known first and foremost for Kirk Gibson -- but Gibson was the 1988 NL MVP before he injured his legs in the NLCS against New York. Hatcher, meanwhile, homered in Games 1 and 5 of the Fall Classic after going deep just once over 202 plate appearances in the regular season. The outfielder finished the series with a .368 average and five RBIs in the Dodgers' huge upset of the A's.

Rick Dempsey, C, 1983 Orioles
Dempsey hit .231 with four homers over 400 plate appearances during the regular season for the O's. But after going 2-for-12 in the ALCS against the White Sox, Dempsey came alive in the World Series against the Phillies. The catcher hit .385 in the Fall Classic, with all five of his hits going for extra bases (four doubles and one homer). Dempsey, who didn't make a single All-Star team over 24 big league seasons, earned the World Series MVP Award.

Brian Doyle, 2B, 1978 Yankees
World Series MVP Bucky Dent would fit here, too, but Doyle was just as much a hero out of left field for a Yankees team filled with stars. An infielder who finished his career with a .161 average over 110 regular-season games, Doyle filled in for injured second baseman Willie Randolph and hit .438 (7-for-16) with just the second and third RBIs of his career in the Yankees' six-game win over the Dodgers. His first RBI came in New York's ALCS win over the Royals.

Gene Tenace, C, 1972 A's
Tenace's 82 regular-season appearances for the A's in 1972 were a career high at the time, and he batted just .225 with 13 extra-base hits (five homers) for the AL champs. In the ALCS, he went 1-for-17 with an RBI single during Oakland's five-game squeaker over the Tigers. But something flipped during the World Series, as Tenace hit .348 (8-for-23) with four homers and nine RBIs to capture the World Series MVP Award over bigger A's stars like Vida Blue, Rollie Fingers, Ken Holtzman and Catfish Hunter.

Donn Clendenon, 1B, 1969 Mets
Clendenon won the 1969 World Series MVP Award even though he didn't make a single appearance in the Mets' NLCS victory over the Braves and didn't even wear a New York uniform until a mid-June trade from the Expos. The first baseman recorded at least one hit in each of his four World Series starts and knocked homers in Games 2, 4 and 5. Clendenon was the first midseason acquisition to become World Series MVP, and he's since been joined by only Pearce of the 2018 Red Sox.

Don Larsen, SP, 1956 Yankees
Would you have picked a pitcher who was 30-41 lifetime and got knocked around in his first World Series start (four runs in 1 2/3 innings in Game 2) to throw the first and only perfect game in Fall Classic history? Larsen's Game 5 masterpiece still ranks among the biggest World Series shockers, and the image of catcher Yogi Berra jumping into Larsen's arms is one of its most enduring.

Johnny Podres, SP, 1955 Dodgers
Podres went 9-10 for the Dodgers in 1955, his third season in the Majors, and he might have been his team's fourth-best starter behind Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine and Billy Loes. But it's hard to imagine the Dodgers finally beating the Yankees and winning their only title in Brooklyn without Podres. The southpaw earned the first World Series MVP Award after a complete-game win in Game 3 and a shutout in Game 7 at Yankee Stadium.