Unlikely heroes shine in September

Players thrust into the September spotlight often are different from luminaries of the previous five months. Here are some players to watch.

Stephen Strasburg is finished for the season. Nick Markakis is out for six weeks with a broken hand. Clayton Kershaw was scratched Sunday from the Dodgers’ most important game of the year because of hip soreness. American League Cy Young Award candidates David Price and Jered Weaver missed their turns with shoulder ailments.

The absences constituted some of the weekend’s biggest baseball news — while reminding us that players thrust into the September spotlight often are different from luminaries of the previous five months.

Understudies lurk on every roster, obscured by slump, injury or circumstance. When the bigger names fade — or, in Strasburg’s case, disappear altogether — the decisive moments are there for the claiming.

Witness Dan Johnson. He’s a journeyman who has played barely 400 games in the major leagues. He appeared in only 31 games for the Tampa Bay Rays last year, with a .119 batting average. Yet he’s one of the most celebrated players on that team, because of his ninth-inning, pinch-hit home run to force extra innings in the Rays’ improbable Game 162 triumph over the Yankees.

Johnson is an extreme example, because of the magnitude and serendipity of his contribution. But he’s proof that September stars can come from far-flung places — in his case Blaine, Minn., by way of the Yokohama Baystars of the Japanese Central League.

Here’s a list of potential late-season heroes on each contending club. Some are already well-known. Others aren’t. All of them would love to be like Dan Johnson — who, by the way, joined the Chicago White Sox as a September call-up.

NEW YORK YANKEES — Alex Rodriguez

I know. A-Rod isn’t exactly an obscure player. But he’s in the midst of an ordinary season — by his standards. He has an OPS of .818, down slightly from .823 last year. At 37, the best years of his career are behind him. He’s derided as old, and not always fairly. For one thing, age had nothing to do with the Felix Hernandez fastball that broke his hand and cost him 36 games.

But A-Rod remains a threat. The Yankees were a mediocre 18-18 without him, and now he is hitting .308 (8-for-26) in his first seven games back from the disabled list. Rodriguez is still capable of carrying the Yankees — and they may need him to do so, particularly with the uncertainty surrounding Mark Teixeira.

BALTIMORE ORIOLES — Chris Davis

Despite the Orioles’ resiliency this season, the injury to Markakis may be the one thing they can’t overcome. Markakis had been the team’s most consistent offensive force lately — with a .335 batting average in the second half — before a broken left thumb ended his season Saturday night.

Davis took his place in right field Sunday and went 1-for-4 in Baltimore’s loss to the Yankees. Davis is a dramatically different hitter than Markakis, but he can contribute to the cause as long as he hits a few well-timed home runs down the stretch. (Nate McLouth, who replaced Markakis in the leadoff spot Sunday, is another player to watch.)

TAMPA BAY RAYS — Desmond Jennings

The question hasn’t gone away: Can the Rays score enough runs to support their superb pitching? The Texas Rangers bounced them from the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, largely because the Rays were unable to produce when it mattered most.

Jennings, 25, is the key to writing a different ending this year. Although Jennings has been sidelined with a back injury recently, he’s the type of power-speed threat who can be a true difference-maker in September and October.

CHICAGO WHITE SOX — Dayan Viciedo

He doesn’t have the prodigious power numbers of Adam Dunn or consistency of Paul Konerko, but Viciedo has socked 20 home runs this season and can deliver the decisive blow in a 2-1 or 3-2 pennant chase game. But don’t be surprised if Dewayne Wise — another candidate for postseason heroism — forces his way into more playing time at Viciedo’s customary position in left field.

DETROIT TIGERS — Avisail Garcia

With the bottom half of the Tigers’ lineup struggling to produce runs — namely Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta — Garcia is as much of a candidate to revive the offense as anyone else. The 21-year-old rookie debuted for the Tigers Aug. 31 and has been starting in the outfield against left-handed pitching. He has exceptional tools and could turn a game with a laser throw from right field or line drive into the gap.

TEXAS RANGERS — Derek Holland

Holland played this role last October, with his magnificent performance against St. Louis in Game 4 of the World Series. But the Rangers are still waiting for the last out of their first championship, and now Holland must help them get another chance. Holland’s numbers regressed this season — his ERA was above 5.00 as recently as last month — but his streak of four straight quality starts suggests that he’s ready to win in the postseason again.

OAKLAND ATHLETICS — Stephen Drew

The Oakland roster is dotted with unheralded offensive contributors, like Chris Carter, Brandon Moss, Jonny Gomes and Seth Smith. But Drew might have the best chance to raise his profile as the month wears on. Drew didn’t play until late June this season while recovering from a fractured right ankle. He hit under .200 over 40 games with Arizona but has been more productive since an August trade to Oakland. He’s playing for his next contract, too.

LOS ANGELES ANGELS — C.J. Wilson

Wilson is having an odd first season in Anaheim. He made the All-Star team but then plunged into an alarming slump, with a 6.79 ERA in his first nine starts after the break. Now he’s back on a three-start winning streak and is crucial to the Angels’ hopes of saving their season with a wild-card berth. Wilson didn’t pitch as poorly in the 2011 World Series as some of his harshest critics would have you believe; he’s highly motivated to come up big.

WASHINGTON NATIONALSJordan Zimmermann

Despite his frequent brilliance this season, Zimmermann has avoided top billing. If people weren’t talking about Strasburg, they were praising Gio Gonzalez for his bid to lead the National League in strikeouts. But there’s no hiding anymore. With Strasburg done for the year, Zimmermann needs to be at least a No. 2 starter.

There’s even more riding on Zimmermann’s performance than the Nationals’ fate this season. He’s the model for the team’s handling of Strasburg, since Zimmermann’s innings were tightly controlled last year following Tommy John surgery. If Zimmermann excels in September (and October), then the Nationals can hold up his performance as proof that their plan works. But that’s not a sure thing: Zimmermann has a 5.54 ERA since Aug. 1.

ATLANTA BRAVES — Kris Medlen

Speaking of Tommy John success stories … Medlen is suddenly the National League pitcher no one wants to face. He’s 7-0 with a 0.81 ERA in eight starts since returning to the rotation July 31. Particularly because it appears the Braves will have to win the wild-card game to advance into a division series, manager Fredi Gonzalez needs multiple top-end pitchers if he wants to reach the NLCS. Medlen could be called the Braves’ ace — at least for the moment.

CINCINNATI REDS — Mat Latos

This time of year is why the Reds traded so many promising prospects to San Diego for Latos during the offseason. Cincinnati was no match for Philadelphia’s rotation in the 2010 postseason, and GM Walt Jocketty apparently took note. In Latos, the Reds have a strong No. 2 starter to pair with ace Johnny Cueto. Latos is in the midst of a strong second half (5-2, 3.04 ERA) and may be the difference between the Reds making a quick exit or sustained playoff run.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS — Jon Jay

Jay has moved into the leadoff spot in the absence of Rafael Furcal — a role Jay had on occasion last season but is now making his own. Jay batted .182 during the postseason last year, and then-manager Tony La Russa left him out of the starting lineup in Games 5 and 7 of the World Series. But Jay is more established in the role now, with an .818 OPS to go along with 16 stolen bases.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES — Brock Holt

Who? Truth be known, the Pirates probably would rather America not know all that much about Holt right now. He’s a 24-year-old rookie pressed into service as a sub for injured second baseman Neil Walker. The native Texan has eight games of big-league experience — all this month in the heat of a pennant race. The Pirates have struggled to score lately and were just swept by the Cubs. Holt, hitting .414, is one of their last remaining hopes.

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS — Angel Pagan

The Giants have the NL’s second-best record (23-12) since Pagan moved into the leadoff spot on a full-time basis, and his steadiness has helped the team compensate for the loss of Melky Cabrera to a PED suspension. Pagan is one of only four players in the majors (Mike Trout, Michael Bourn and Jimmy Rollins are the others) with 80 or more runs and 25 or more stolen bases.

LOS ANGELES DODGERS — Josh Beckett

The Dodgers are in real jeopardy of missing the playoffs, particularly after Sunday’s 4-0 loss in San Francisco. They are 5-1/2 games back in the NL West and realistically must hope for a wild-card spot. But at least Beckett has pitched decently since arriving in the Boston blockbuster, with a 1-2 record and 3.86 ERA. He’s not an ace anymore, but he’s shown that he can be a steady No. 2. Now he needs to summon his October guts — and put them on display in September.

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