In a marathon season of lengthy contests played out in the summer heat, the MLB stretch run is particularly brutal. The game’s guttiest ballplayers seem to rise to the occasion in these moments. Battles of the will end with the victor influencing a game’s outcome and ultimately a team’s shot at making the playoffs.
It is hard to say a team hitched its wagon to a single player and thus made the postseason, but there have been clear examples in the past. Without C.C. Sabathia (11-2, 1.65 ERA, 7 CG, 3 SO) from July 7 on, the Milwaukee Brewers do not make the playoffs in 2008; without Carlos Beltran (23 HR, 58 RBI, .927 OPS) for the final 90 games of the season, the Astros do not make the playoffs (nor do they make the World Series) in 2004.
Here are seven Major League Baseball stars their teams hope can carry the club to the postseason in 2014. Stats are current as of July 18.
1. Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles
It has been an ugly 2014 season in many ways for Manny Machado. Baltimore’s 22-year-old phenom hit an awkward patch that began with a spring training injury and turned embarrassing after an altercation with the Oakland A’s in June. The Orioles hope their young star has gotten it out of his system and is ready to do damage for the rest of the season.
In the run-up to the All-Star break, Machado found his groove again, hitting close to .500 (15-for-31) in the eight games prior and making a bevy of slick defensive plays. Mixed in with a 5-for-6 performance in Washington and a game-winning run scored in extra innings against the Yankees, Manny was back to his invaluable ways.
The Orioles have gotten such phenomenal production from Nelson Cruz that it would be tough to ask their slugger to rack up another 30 bombs in the months ahead. For his part, Chris Davis doesn’t appear ready to deliver another MVP-caliber performance. Baltimore hopes Machado’s surge will continue so the Orioles can ride it straight into the playoffs.
2. Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pittsburgh Pirates exited the All-Star break just three games behind the division and wild card leaders. However, closing that tiny gap will take some doing, since the two teams ahead of them — the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds — are also in the NL Central. Expect a war of attrition in the division over the next few months to see who can nab the playoff spots.
For the Pirates, their hopes ride on the back of reigning MVP Andrew McCutchen. Coming out of the midsummer break, McCutchen leads the team in every offensive category, but he has been picking up the pace as the weather’s gotten hotter. After hitting .284 in April, McCutchen hit .310 in May and .343 in June. He has exploded in July with a .385 batting average, .431 OPS (1.296 OPS), 5 home runs, and 13 RBI in 52 at-bats.
McCutchen is on pace to shatter his career bests in every offensive category, which means great things for the Pirates as they prepare for a dogfight to make the postseason. Though McCutchen can’t give them any innings on the mound, he may be the best offensive weapon in the National League.
3. Albert Pujols, Anaheim Angels
Big Albert Pujols came out of spring training with a chip on his shoulder. Following a year hampered by injury and criticism about his very expensive long-term contract, Pujols has reminded the league how he earned that payday: by terrorizing opposing pitchers.
Pujols posted 20 HR and 42 RBI at the break, but he has been heating up as the summer wears on, putting up the high batting average everyone remembers from his St. Louis days. After slugging his way through the first three months, Pujols is hitting .373 in July with a .991 OPS. In his 10 games before the break, he went on a .476 tear with 14 RBI and just 1 strikeout.
Imagine a power hitter who can hit 40 home runs and strike out once every few weeks. That’s the zone Pujols is in right now, and anyone playing the Angels understands what team ownership had in mind pairing this slugger with Mike Trout and Josh Hamilton. There is more than one MVP candidate on the Angels.
4. Jonathan Lucroy, Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers have had their share of distractions with Ryan Braun and Carlos Gomez, but the one constant in the team’s impressive 2014 campaign has been Jonathan Lucroy. With MVP-caliber numbers and a foolproof approach to calling games for the pitching staff, Lucroy has been the rock the Brew Crew needs to continue this surprising push for the postseason.
There is no shortage of teams waiting to take the Brewers’ place out of the All-Star break. St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh are all one hot streak away from knocking Milwaukee out of first. With no margin for error, the Brewers hope Lucroy can shake off his July slump and carry the team through the dog days of the 2014 season.
5. Mark Teixeira, New York Yankees
Brett Gardner may be the Yankees’ best everyday player in 2014, but Mark Teixeira is the only power hitter getting the job done. Both Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann have had disappointing seasons at the midway point, while Alfonso Soriano was a complete no-show before he was designated for assignment by management in July.
Teixeira has shouldered the weight the whole season, putting up a team-best 17 home runs and 48 RBI despite missing 21 games to injury. On a team filled with frustration and riddled with injuries, Teixeira has been the run producer the Yankees have desperately needed. His passion for the game also cannot be underestimated. The Yankees are only three games out of a wild card spot, but if the team is going anywhere in 2014, they need Teixeira to stay healthy and have a huge second half of the season.
6. Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals
Bryce Harper hit the proverbial wall in 2014 due to injury and struggles to rediscover his timing at the plate. With just 2 home runs and a .244 batting average at the break, it is safe for the Nationals to expect a big boost of offense ahead once Harper finds his stroke.
Of course, the Harper effect does not begin and end at the plate. His brash style of play in the outfield and on the basepaths has a way of energizing the players around him. Harper’s numbers will improve, but he has the potential to ignite his team as the Nats try to make it back to the playoffs in 2014. As the front office and fan base learned during the painful 2013 season, there are no October guarantees in this game.
7. Robinson Cano, Seattle Mariners
Yankees fans, the New York media, and even Pete Rose scoffed at Robinson Cano taking an extra three years of guaranteed contract money to play for the Seattle Mariners rather than accept the Yankees’ 7-year, $175 million offer. Rose said Cano got “an extra 30-day vacation … called October” by signing with Seattle for 1o years and $240 million.
Sure, that was a great zinger from Charlie Hustle, but lo and behold the standings. Cano and his Mariners club lead the race for the second AL wild card spot coming out of the break, three games ahead of the Yankees (now decimated by injuries) and three other mediocre clubs. The Mariners have the best pitcher in the AL and many other things going right for them as they gear up for a playoff run.
Most of all, they have a menacing hitter in Cano, who has seen the rigors of a stretch run. Though he’s already hitting .334 with 57 RBI, Cano has picked up the pace in July with a gaudy .426 average (1.086 OPS). The Mariners are ready to ride their lineup anchor into the postseason, which they haven’t been able to do since 2001.