When Aaron Boone stepped in against Tim Wakefield in the 11th inning of the seventh game of last year’s ALCS, Red Sox fans could be forgiven a bit of confidence. A mediocre player to begin with, Boone was having a terrible series at the plate, flailing his way to two base hits in 16 at-bats. But he promptly cemented a place in Yankees (and Red Sox) history by jacking a Tim Wakefield flutterball into the cheap seats, achieving a celebrity otherwise unimaginable.
So now, as baseball chugs its way into the last three series of its postseason, the games remind us that virtually every year, we unexpectedly witness the startling contributions of a lesser known player, without which the team’s stars would be rationalizing a loss to the hometown press.
As much as surprise performances might seem the bane of any predictions, they’re part and parcel of what makes postseason baseball a treasure. Some unlikely achievements of past postseasons include:
- Don Larsen, Yankees, 1956 World Series. The sine qua non of having the best day of an otherwise pedestrian career at the best possible time, Larsen’s perfect game against the Dodgers in Game Five gave them a key edge to winning the series in seven.
- Gene Tenace, Athletics, 1972 World Series. Greeted by cheers of “who?”, Tenace came in with only 20 big league home runs over the previous four seasons as a little-used reserve. He left the series with a record-tying four home runs, humbling the Big Red Machine in its loss to a Reggie Jackson-less Oakland squad.
- Marty Barrett and Dave Henderson, Red Sox, 1986 American League Championship Series. Neither was a star in a lineup known for names like Rice, Evans and Boggs, but Barrett hit .400 over 60 at-bats in the ALCS and World Series, and Hendu hit the infamous home run off Donnie Moore to beat the Angels in the ALCS.
- Mickey Hatcher, Dodgers, 1988 World Series. Kirk Gibson‘s Game One home run is one of the classic moments of American sports history, but it was Hatcher who led the series in home runs, runs and RBI in the Dodgers’ upset win over the A’s.
- Billy Hatcher, Reds, 1990 World Series. As if to confirm the notion that you should never pitch to people named Hatcher in the postseason, Billy topped Mickey’s exploits, going 9-for-12 and scoring six runs in the second lopsided postseason rout of the Bash Brothers in three years.
- Mark Lemke, Braves, 1991 World Series. In the improbable worst-to-first season that heralded the beginning of Braves dominance in the NL, “The Lemmer” would gain postseason renown by hitting .417 with three triples.
- Chad Ogea, Indians, 1997 World Series. There were other more famous people pitching for the Indians in their desperate quest for their first title since 1948, but it was Ogea who twice beat Marlins ace Kevin Brown after posting a 4.99 regular season ERA.
- Brendan Donnelly, Angels, 2002 World Series. K-Rod and Troy Percival got the highlight reels and the headlines for their work, but Donnelly quietly chipped in 7 2/3 scoreless innings, allowing a lone single in his fifth appearance of the seven-game win over the Giants.
All of these players were good enough to be regulars at some point in their careers, but none of them will find plaques in Cooperstown for their achievements as players. Still, fans remember the contributions of Billy Bates in the 1990 World Series, or Mike Davis‘ impossible walk off of Dennis Eckersley in 1988, setting up Gibson’s home run.
Who might be the likely candidates for postseason stardom this season? Most of the fun is in the surprise, of course, but here are some interesting players to follow:
- Miguel Cairo, Yankees 2B. “The Pest” doesn’t boast hefty batting numbers, and in a superstar lineup he might be ignored. That would be a mistake: he’s already been a surprise postseason star once, hitting .529 and slugging .765 for the 2002 Cardinals.
- Mike Timlin, Red Sox RP. The journeyman that New England wished Grady Little remembered to use earlier in the eighth inning of Game 7 last year could be the crucial third man to help closer Keith Foulke and lefty Alan Embree preserve late leads.
- Kiko Calero, Cardinals RP. With the rotation lacking any true stars, Calero could be the one who comes into the game and protects middle-inning leads. In the last two seasons, he’s held opposing hitters to a .193 batting average and .348 slugging average, while striking out 98 hitters in 83 2/3 innings.
- Brandon Backe, Astros SP. Backe has already surprised people by pushing his way into the third spot in the Astros rotation down the stretch. Having escaped the Devil Rays and beaten the Braves in the Division Series, the converted outfielder might surprise the Cardinals on the mound or at the plate. With Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt both needing breathers after three-day-rest starts in Games Four and Five of the Division Series, Backe could play a huge role.
- Tony Womack, Cardinals 2B. It’s easy to remember Luis Gonzalez‘s winning single in Game 7 against Mariano Rivera, but Womack ripped the game-tying double that left Yankees fans stunned. After his first season hitting over .300, Womack could continue his improbable run as the Cards’ lineup catalyst with a latter-day Lemke performance.