1. Hal Smith
Which would you prefer: a three-run homer to give your team a two-run lead with two outs in the bottom of the eighth or a walkoff solo home run to lead off the bottom of the ninth? Win probability says the former improves a team's chance of winning by 64 percent while the latter team is already likely to win. But while the three run shot may be more valuable, I'll bet most baseball fans know all about Bill Mazeroski's famous homer off Ralph Terry to win the 1960 World Series. Fewer will recall Hal Smith's role in the Pirates surprising victory.
Smith, Pittsburgh's reserve catcher, was only playing in the decisive seventh game because Joe Christopher had run for lead-footed catcher Smokey Burgess earlier in the contest. The career backup suddenly found himself at the center of proceedings when an eighth inning Pittsburgh rally reduced a 7-4 deficit against the heavily favored Yankees to a single run. Even then, Smith's moment nearly never came: on an 0-2 pitch, Smith almost chased a fastball out of the zone. The umpire ruled that Smith checked his swing however, and he deposited the next pitch over the left field fence, launching the Forbes Field crowd into pandemonium.
While Smith's homer doesn't resonate today like Mazeroski's, one can persuasively argue that he was the real hero of the 1960 World Series, and the source of one of the World Series' greatest—and most unlikely—moments. —Brendan Gawlowski
2. Scott Podsednik
Scott Podsednik was kind of a cult-hero for the 2005 White Sox (it didn’t last much past that season, as the fans and media turned on him quickly, but that’s a separate story). There was a sort of myth that was propagated that Podsednik was the engine that made this team run. He’d get on base to start the game, steal a base, Tad Iguchi would get him to third, Jermaine Dye or Paul Konerko would drive him in, and voila, the Sox had an early lead. I’m sure it happened like that every once in a while, but the belief that Podsednik was some huge piece of the puzzle was slightly overblown, just like the notion that those White Sox relied on small-ball (or Ozzie-ball, as it was often referred to), when in reality they led all of baseball in home runs by a solid margin.
Unsurprisingly, the South Siders crushed six home runs in their sweep of the Houston Astros that October, but it was Podsednik’s bomb in the bottom of the ninth of Game Two that came as an absolute shocker. The White Sox 2005 postseason run had plenty of heroes, including dominant performances from the starting staff, a remarkable outing by Orlando Hernandez in which he wriggled out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam, Dye and Joe Crede coming up with numerous huge hits, Geoff Blum with an extra-innings home run in Game Three of the World Series, and Konerko, who hit a grand slam earlier in Game Two that temporarily gave the Sox a 6-4 lead.
But nothing can trump Podsednik’s moment as far as the unexpected goes. Podsednik had zero home runs all season and he’d already shocked us all by homering in the ALDS; it seemed quite unlikely that he’d be doing so once again. But, alas, that’s why our postseason predictions so often look foolish, because it’s impossible to predict what happens in this game. And if by some miracle you did predict that, you would have been roundly mocked because of the utter ridiculousness at the suggestion that Scott Podsednik would give the White Sox a 2-0 lead in the Series with one swing of the bat. But it happened. I promise you, it really did.
Side note: Joe Buck, who I’m a fan of, has a rather boring call on that homer, but at the very end, Tim McCarver quite plainly add, “How do these things happen? Unbelievable.” Hardly cutting-edge analysis, but I believe it’s apropos for such a stunning end to the game. —Sahadev Sharma
3. Francisco Cabrera
There's something of a mythos that has developed around Francisco Cabrera here in Atlanta. Cabrera was the erstwhile catching prospect who in the bottom of the ninth of Game Seven of the 1992 NLCS hit a pinch-hit, two run single that turned a 2-1 Braves deficit into a 3-2 Braves win. It's the one where Sid (Bream) slid. I think it's generally believed that Cabrera was actually a 12-year-old kid who won a talent contest and got to be the 25th man on the Braves playoff roster.
It's true that Cabrera had only logged 11 regular-season plate appearances that year (all but one as a pinch-hitter), but he had been with the team for good chunks of 1990 and 1991. Still, the reason that he was out there in the bottom of the ninth was that Braves primary catcher Greg Olson was injured, and that Bobby Cox had already used Lonnie Smith, Rafael Belliard (as a defensive replacement), Brian Hunter, Jeff Treadway, and Deion Sanders (yeah, him), so the bench was fairly empty. It was going to have to be either Cabrera or some guy named Javy Lopez to face Stan Belinda, and Cabrera was carried mostly because he was a decent pinch-hitter. So, it wasn't all that unlikely that Francisco Cabrera was in the batter's box, but at the beginning of the year, you would have gotten great odds on predicting that he would be the hero come October. —Russell A. Carleton
4. Bobby Richardson
Bobby Richardson? He wasn’t a post-season hero, you protest. Sure, he won the World Series MVP Award in 1960, but the Pirates won the World Series, not Richardson’s Yankees. You can be a hero in a losing cause—just ask Robert E. Lee—but that’s beside the point. Richardson remains the only player to win the award on a losing team. The light-hitting second baseman (career .266/.299/.335) hit .367/.387/.667 with two doubles, two triples, and a grand slam, plus 12 RBI. No Pirate drove in more than five runs. (It was one of the most lopsided Series ever played. The Yankees dominated in everything but number of wins.) Richardson also made several “dazzling grabs in the infield,” a quote I made up (because I didn’t see the games, because I wasn’t alive) in order to help explain why he won the award, other than his Series-high RBI total and his unexpected hitting outburst.
Why on earth didn’t the award go to Bill Mazeroski? Maz ended the Series—probably the unlikeliest ever played, and Richardson’s MVP selection the unlikely capper—with one of the most dramatic homers in playoff history: a walk-off in the ninth inning of Game Seven, a 10-9 thriller. He hit it off Ralph Terry, who would win the World Series MVP award himself two years later. Not only that, Mazeroski also hit a big homer in game one to increase the Bucs’ win expectancy from 69 percent to 86 percent. Overall, he put up a .960 OPS for the Series; and, like Richardson (who also saved his best hitting for the post-season), he was a banjo-hitting, slick-fielding second baseman, with an eerily similar career slash line of .260/.299/.367.
So what gives? Here’s a fun explanation for Richardson’s award: In 1960, MVP ballots allegedly had to be cast before the eighth inning of the final game. At that point in Game Seven, the Yankees had a 5-4 lead—and even if any writers were laggard with their ballots, New York tacked on two more in the eighth before the Pirates rallied in the bottom of the eighth, the Yankees rallied back in the top of the ninth, and then Mazeroski won it in the bottom half. Richardson was on the winning team through seven innings, and he had a heckuva series, but here’s the unlikeliest thing about his award: one of his own teammates had an even heckuver series, a fellow by the name of Mickey Mantle, who hit .400/.545/.800, with three homers and eight walks (and 11 RBI). According to Mantle, Richardson was “dad-gummed surprised” to win the award, and traded in his prize of a Chevy Corvette for a station wagon. —Adam Sobsey
5. Craig Counsell
Craig Counsell had to have been one of the most annoying baseball players of my childhood. UGH. He had that silly batting stance like he was a hyper seven-year-old trying to seem bigger because he was playing sandlot ball with nine-year-olds. And he was your prototypical late-inning defensive replacement. He was legitimately valuable on defense, posting 65.6 FRAA for his career. He was also not very threatening on offense, with a career 79 OPS+.
But somehow, he was always involved with the big postseason moments. It wasn’t always his great play—he just always was there when something big happened.
I first learned to hate him when he was a member of the 1997 Marlins, while I was rooting for the Indians. He tied the fateful Game Seven in the ninth with a sac fly, then hit a grounder that Cleveland infielder Tony Fernandez booted in the 11th. He would score the winning run and post a WPA of 0.30 for the game.
Counsell reappeared in 2001. He was the MVP of the NLCS against Atlanta, after hitting .381 with four RBI. Then, in the World Series, he was able to summon devil magic again during a game-winning rally. It turned out to be inconsequential, but he was hit by a pitch in the bottom of the ninth inning. Mariano Rivera faced 527 batters in the postseason, hit three, and Counsell was one of them.
His overall postseason numbers are no more special than his regular-season stats. But there were a number of times when he was around while your team’s postseason hopes vanished. —Dan Rozenson
6. Travis Ishikawa
One way to know that a player's heroics have come as a surprise is to hear shock in the voice of a Hall of Fame broadcaster whose major-league announcing career spans 40 years.
So stunned was Jon Miller that the journeyman had given the Giants the pennant that he repeated "Travis Ishikawa" three times separated by just 18 other words.
The 31-year-old—who took home a World Series ring in 2010—was so anonymous, even in the wake of his heroics, that the media needed to be reminded that he is not bilingual:
No "I don't speak Japanese" sign at Ishikawa's podium this year. "I was hoping they would remember from four years ago," he said.
— Alex Pavlovic (@AlexPavlovic) October 20, 2014
That's what happens when you spend a year out of the majors and bounce around four organizations before coming full circle. And somehow, after all that, Travis Ishikawa and Bobby Thomson are now forever linked in Giants lore. —Daniel Rathman
7. Colby Lewis
If, in March of 2010, you had put money on Colby Lewis winning Game Three of the World Series that same year, you’re probably not even reading this because you’re relaxing on the yacht you bought with your Las Vegas winnings.
Though one could point at a fair share of unlikely heroes in that Texas playoff run, Lewis winning three postseason games (and only giving up five runs in 21 1/3 non-ALDS innings) was something few expected. In his first year back in MLB after two seasons with Japan’s Hiroshima Carp, Lewis worked a fairly unexceptional regular season. He was good by the Rangers’ rotational standards of the day, leading the pitching staff in strikeouts (196 in 201 innings pitched), but tied for the lead in homers allowed as well (21, with Tommy Hunter). This was all well and fine for someone who had last pitched stateside in 2007 and came back to the team that drafted him, 11 years after his selection. However, he was not who one would ideally want pitching in a series in which the Rangers were already down two games to none against a Giants team exhibiting the first signs of even-year magic. Cliff Lee’s Game One shelling, followed by a late obliteration of C.J. Wilson in the next contest, put an inexperienced team on its heels, looking for the unlikely heroism needed to win Game Three.
Of course, Lewis’ Game Three was the only bright spot in that World Series for Texas, as the Giants went on to win four games to one. Quite a bright spot it was, though: a pitcher previously thought to have been a reclamation project giving the Rangers their first-ever victory in a World Series. —Kate Morrison
8. Delmon Young
Want to win some postseason games? Here's a formula:
- 1. Sign Delmon Young
- 2. Do not play him much in the regular season
- 3. I said, do not play him much in the regular season
- 4. I see you trying to pencil him in batting sixth and playing left. What are you doing, you fool
- 5. Reach the playoffs
- 6. Bat him third
After all, here's a list of reasons why this has worked:
- 2011 ALDS Game 3: Go-ahead home run in the seventh inning, Tigers win 5-4
- 2011 ALDS Game 5: Home run in the first inning, Tigers win 3-2
- 2011 ALCS Game 5: Two home runs, three RBI in elimination game, Tigers win 7-5
- 2012 ALCS Game 1: Go-ahead double in the 12th inning following Jose Valverde's legendary ninth-inning meltdown. Young had a home run and RBI single earlier in the game. Tigers win 7-5
- 2012 ALCS Game 3: Game-tying home run in the fourth inning; Tigers win 2-1
- 2013 Wild Card: Go-ahead home run in the third, Rays win 4-0
- 2014 ALDS Game 3: Bases-clearing, pinch hit, go-ahead double in the eighth inning, Orioles win 7-6
And his career regular season OPS is .742. —Matt Sussman
9. Undersized Middle-Infielder Guy
In a storyline that seemed improbable when he was cut by his high-school team/was released by a team earlier in the season/flamed out as a prospect in the upper minors, undersized middle infielder guy powered his team to postseason glory with strong defense/an improbable home run/consistently clutch hits/one incredible game-saving defensive play. This must’ve come as a shock to everyone who doubted the diminutive middle infielder including (but not limited to) scouts, his high-school varsity coach, his ex-wife, various minor-league hitting coaches and 29 other organizations. One team/scout/coach/high-school coach still saw some potential in the journeyman/rookie/former washout and petitioned their organization to take a chance on him. The storybook ending to his postseason, one that would no doubt be rejected by Hollywood were it a script for being “too sappy," will stand as an inspiration to every other undersized/underappreciated/hard-working/non-flashy player who comes after him. —Mauricio Rubio