- Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw is back to try and help Los Angeles hold onto the NL West lead, but he isn't the only player who will have a crucial role down the stretch with a playoff berth on the line.
Thank goodness for the wild card. With just over three weeks remaining in the regular season, most of baseball's division races have already been decided. According to Baseball Prospectus, the Cubs (100%) and Nationals (99.6%) are virtual locks to win the National League East and Central, respectively, and in the American League, the Rangers (99.8%) and Indians (95.0%) are all but guaranteed to capture the West and Central, respectively. The Dodgers, meanwhile, have a 92.5% chance of winning the NL West, but the Giants are just five games behind and the two longtime rivals have six head-to-head matchups yet to play before the season expires. That leaves the AL East as the only division without a clear front-runner; the Red Sox lead the Blue Jays by one game, the Orioles by two and the Yankees by four.
The wild-card races, however, feature 12 teams within five games of a postseason berth. Who will ultimately emerge from the playoff chase? These five players could become the keys to their teams’ September success, or the disappointments that lead to their undoing.
NOTE: Players are listed alphabetically. All stats are through Thursday, Sept. 8.
Jose Bautista, OF, Blue Jays
The Blue Jays spent most of August leading the AL East, but a recent sweep at the hands of the Yankees in New York dropped them out of first place. Though they lead the wild-card chase, they can get back atop the division when they host the Red Sox this weekend for a crucial three-game series in Toronto. Just like last year, the Jays' offense has been leading the charge: They are third in the league in home runs (198) and tied for sixth in runs per game (4.86). But for Toronto to return to the postseason this year, they will need to see a resurgence from Bautista, who has struggled amid injuries all season.
Bautista started his age-35 campaign by hitting just .230/.360/.455 with just 12 home runs in 65 games before going on the disabled list with a toe injury in June, and he has performed even more poorly (.225/.328/.414) in the 28 games since, a stretch that was interrupted by another trip to the DL for a knee injury. Overall, Bautista is hitting .228/.350/.422 with 17 home runs and 55 RBIs, a sharp regression from 2015, when he slugged 40 home runs and drove in 114 runs. The Blue Jays could use the sort of September surge Bautista enjoyed last year, when he hit nine home runs, in helping Toronto to its first division title and postseason berth since 1993. A similar performance this year could get the Blue Jays back to October.
Clayton Kershaw, SP, Dodgers
Although there have been reports that the Dodgers’ ace is still not fully recovered from the herniated disc in his back that has kept him off a major league mound since June 26, Kershaw will be back on the bump Friday night against the Marlins. The last time the lefty pitched for Los Angeles, his team was eight games back of the Giants in the National League West. But despite losing Kershaw and his 1.79 ERA, the Dodgers have surged to five games ahead in the division since he was sidelined.
That success is mostly due to the team's offense. The Dodgers have the second-best OPS (.784) in the NL since the All-Star break, the second-most runs scored (246), the fourth-most home runs (69) and the fifth-highest slugging percentage (.452). But before you decide that Los Angeles would be fine without Kershaw for the rest of the season, remember that the team is 14–2 in games pitched by its ace this season. Getting back a three-time Cy Young winner would be a boost to any club; if Kershaw can return in the form he showed earlier this season (a 218 ERA+ and 145 strikeouts in 121 innings), then he could give the Dodgers the piece they need to lock up the division.
Seth Lugo, Robert Gsellman and Rafael Montero, SP, Mets
With a rotation that was supposed to feature Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Bartolo Colon and Steven Matz, the Mets looked like they would pitch their way back to the World Series for the second straight year. But injuries have ruined New York's plans: Harvey is out after undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery in July; deGrom hasn't pitched since Sept. 1 due to forearm inflammation; and Matz is currently on the DL with a strained shoulder that has cost him the last three weeks. Replacing All Stars with no-names isn't the formula manager Terry Collins drew up as he watched the Nationals pull away with the NL East, but Lugo, Gsellman and Montero have been the reason a wild-card spot is still within reach.
Lugo, 26, first pitched out of the bullpen when he was called up in July but has posted a 3–1 record with a 2.19 ERA since being shifted to the rotation to replace the struggling Logan Verrett and the injured Jon Niese. Gsellman, 23, has made two starts in his three appearances for the Mets since Matz was sidelined, putting up a 2.87 ERA in 15 2/3 innings. Montero, 26, has made two spot starts this season for a 2.89 ERA, enough for New York to win both games he started in deGrom’s absence. The Mets will be counting on these young arms down the stretch as they look to keep their recently captured half-game lead over the Cardinals for the second NL wild-card spot.
Matt Moore, SP, Giants
As a lefty, Moore could be an invaluable asset to the Giants as they try to chase down the Dodgers in the NL West. Why? Dodgers manager Dave Roberts has called lefthanded pitching his team’s “Achilles heel,” and the stats bear that out: Los Angeles is hitting a league-worst .218 against lefthanders, and the team's .299 on-base percentage against southpaws is 27th in baseball.
Though Moore has struggled since joining San Francisco in a trade deadline deal with the Rays, posting a 4.31 ERA and 25 walks in 39 2/3 innings over seven starts, he was sensational in his lone turn against the Dodgers, tossing 8 2/3 innings no-hit innings on Aug. 26. Including his two starts against Los Angeles while with Tampa Bay, Moore now owns a 3.20 ERA against the Dodgers this season, winning two of them. His success against the Giants' archrivals could be crucial if fellow lefty Madison Bumgarner continues to struggle with L.A.'s lineup; Bumgarner has a 5.63 ERA against the Dodgers in three starts this season. If he falters again, Moore could be relied upon as the arrow to pierce the Dodgers’ heel.
Travis Shaw, 3B, Red Sox
With the top spot in the AL East still hotly contested, the Red Sox have been able to hold on to the division lead largely due to their offensive performance. Their .286/.351/.467 team slash line leads the league in each category, and they're also first in runs (764), doubles (307) and OPS+ (111). A stellar farewell season from slugger David Ortiz, a resurgence from first baseman Hanley Ramirez and All-Star campaigns from youngsters Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. have been the biggest reason for the club's offensive success, but it will be contributions from less experienced players like Shaw that could make the difference in September.
After hitting .265 with 12 home runs through the first 98 games of the season, Shaw went through an August slump that saw him hit just .167/.250/.292 with two home runs, and at the start of September, he seemingly lost his starting job to Cuban rookie Yoan Moncada, the No. 1 prospect in baseball. But at the end of August, Shaw told reporters he felt like he was on the verge of an offensive breakthrough. That has indeed been the case in September, as Shaw has bashed two homers and driven in eight runs in three games, winning back playing time as Moncada struggles to adjust to major league pitching.
At 26 years old with fewer than two seasons of major league experience, Shaw might not be the star of the Boston offense, but as the Red Sox fight for their first division title since 2013, his bat could help put them over the top.