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Who’s That Guy? 10 potential heroes to know for the MLB postseason

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MLB’s postseason has a habit of turning that guy into That Guy. See Arozarena, Randy. The pressure-packed moments of October give no deference to established stars, and instead often make heroes of the unsung or nationally unknown names on the edges of the roster.

These are the young or late-blooming talents who look primed to alter the course of this year’s quest for the World Series. Better to learn their names now.

LaMonte Wade Jr., San Francisco Giants

A shining example of Farhan Zaidi’s vaunted maneuvering, Wade originally asserted himself as a surprise power threat who could capably fill in at first and corner outfield. In the second half, he hasn’t been “filling in” at all — he’s been one of the few absolute locks in San Francisco’s deep and flexible lineup. His combo of skills will be crucial as he reprises a version of his original role: Stepping up as part of the solution at first base while Brandon Belt recovers from a thumb injury.

If that combo of ability and opportunity wasn’t enough for you, know that he has developed a penchant for thriving in the big moment. “Late Night LaMonte” logged an incredible six game-tying or go-ahead hits in the ninth inning or later — when, again, he wasn’t even in the majors all season. 

What happens when all the moments are crucial?

Bobby Dalbec, Boston Red Sox

When the Red Sox traded for Kyle Schwarber at the deadline, the consensus was that the veteran slugger would try to adapt to first base and become an emergency replacement for flailing rookie Bobby Dalbec. Instead, with a series of conversations while Schwarber was recovering from a hamstring injury, he seems to have transformed him.

Prior to August, Dalbec had suffered through a miserable season batting just .216 and striking out 37.5 percent of the time. But since Aug. 1, he’s destroying the baseball to the tune of a .288/.369/.683 slash with 14 homers and ranks as one of the 10 best hitters in the game over that stretch. He’s even been a smidge better than Schwarber, whose patient approach has yielded a .435 on-base percentage since the deal.

With J.D. Martinez out for the AL wild-card game, Dalbec’s turnaround could loom particularly large.

Tyler O’Neill, St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals’ muscle-bound outfielder has walloped an MLB-best 13 homers since Sept. 1 and is a sneaky great defender.

Yes, St. Louis has headliners in Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, but during their September rampage to seize the NL wild-card, O’Neill has been their best player.

ST PETERSBURG, FLORIDA - SEPTEMBER 20: Shane Baz #11 of the Tampa Bay Rays delivers a pitch to the Toronto Blue Jays in the third inning at Tropicana Field on September 20, 2021 in St Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
Shane Baz has ascended from top prospect to potential playoff ace thanks to a mixture of minor-league dominance and rotation injuries. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

Shane Baz, Tampa Bay Rays

You know about all-everything rookie Rays shortstop Wander Franco. But an even fresher face could be more crucial to their hopes. A 22-year-old top prospect who has just three major-league starts under his belt, Baz possesses the highest ceiling of anyone in Tampa’s playoff starting rotation.

In those three starts, by the way, he strolled right onto the big-league mound and struck out an eye-watering 36.7% of hitters, allowing only three runs and six hits in 13 1/3 innings.

Remember Ian Anderson in 2020? Baz is capable of making the same type of fate-shifting impact.

Kyle Tucker, Houston Astros

OK, OK, so Tucker is fairly established compared to the rest of this list, but he still flies under the radar on the star-studded Astros. Just 24 years old, the lefty-swinging outfielder leveled up in his much-belated first full-length season, smashing 30 homers while striking out in less than 16% of his plate appearances.

That terrifying Houston offense is terrifying in large part because it’s not just Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve.

Nestor Cortes Jr., New York Yankees

Cortes needs the Yankees to escape the wild-card game to make a playoff impact, but he’s already a huge reason for their presence in the postseason. The 26-year-old lefty barely averages 90 mph with his fastball, but he throws it from a baffling array of deliveries and arm angles.

He’s been a godsend for a Yankees pitching staff devastated by injury, tallying a 2.90 ERA in 22 appearances (14 of them starts).

Plus, he introduced Bronxie, the small turtle the Yankees clubhouse has rallied around in an up-and-down September.

Camilo Doval, San Francisco Giants

Doval occupies the pole position in the “guy you’ve never heard of who could totally get the last out of the World Series” derby. The 24-year-old right-hander emerged as a dominant late-inning arm and sometimes-closer late in the season, as if the Giants needed anything else to go right.

He hasn’t allowed a run in 16 1/3 innings since returning to the majors on Aug. 12. He throws a 100 mph cutter. And, unfortunately for hitters, that isn’t even his best pitch.

Spencer Strider, Atlanta Braves

Barely a year removed from pitching in college, Atlanta’s best starting pitching prospect rocketed to the big leagues as a potential playoff weapon out of the bullpen. 

Wielding a fastball that can touch 100 mph in relief and a power slider, Strider might get the chance to build his own hype under the bright lights.

Adrian Houser and Eric Lauer, Milwaukee Brewers

One went 5-1 in the second-half with a team-best 2.43 ERA, allowing just one homer in 55 2/3 innings. The other twirled 62 1/3 innings after the break with a 2.60 ERA in 11 starts.

And neither of them is named Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff or Freddy Peralta. You know about Milwaukee’s quintet of killer arms: potential Cy Young winner Burnes, Woodruff and Peralta in the rotation, plus Josh Hader and the injured Devin Williams in the bullpen.

But “back of the rotation” starters Adrian Houser and Eric Lauer are the ones who racked up those impressive numbers this summer. At least one will be needed in the playoff rotation, but at other times they could also turn into supercharged bullpen options. That’s not even mentioning top prospect Aaron Ashby, a future starter who has struck out more than 11 batters per nine innings since an August call-up out of the pen reminiscent of … well, all of those other star Brewers pitchers.

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