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  • The playoffs put pressure on everyone, but who will really be feeling it this year in the postseason?
By Tom Verducci
October 02, 2018

The late umpire Doug Harvey once gave me a brief but unforgettable sermon about postseason pressure. It was Game 3 of the 1989 National League Championship Series at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The Giants and Cubs were tied at one game each, and the Cubs, with a 4–3 lead, were eight outs away from winning the pivotal third game.

That’s when Cubs manager Don Zimmer made a pitching change in the middle of an at-bat. He pulled lefty Paul Assenmacher with a 1-and-0 count on righthanded Robby Thompson with a runner on first to bring in Les Lancaster. The righthander threw a ball, making the count 2-and-0, but Lancaster thought the count was 3-and-0. He grooved a fastball and Thompson smacked it for a two-run home run. The Giants took the lead and won the game as well as the next two games to go to the World Series.

Harvey, the crew chief, was working the leftfield line that day, and I asked him after the game if Lancaster had been informed of the count upon entering the game. Harvey said, “Of course”—it’s standard procedure for umpires—but then added an observation said so clearly and in Harvey’s unmistakable authoritative manner that it has stuck with me all these years:

“Postseason pressure can do strange things to a man’s mind.”

The postseason does not apply its pressure equally. Some players and some teams face more of it than others. The Oakland A’s, for instance, with the lowest payroll in baseball and one of the lowest profiles, are dangerous because they have little pressure on them. Other teams, managers and players enter postseason play this year with more than the usual pressure the postseason brings to bear.

Here are the 10 players, managers and teams facing the most pressure this postseason. Just two pieces of advice to them: remember to breathe, and remember the count.  

10. Ryan Braun, Brewers

Nobody can let red-hot Christian Yelich beat them, so the load falls to Braun. Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell used Braun behind Yelich in the batting order for the past three games, and it’s a left-right combination that has clicked. Braun has been swinging a hot bat, replacing Jesus Aguilar as the best option to protect Yelich. That means Braun, batting behind Lorenzo Cain and Yelich, who both get on base and run extremely well, will get a ton of RBI opportunities.

Braun is a career .379 hitter in 15 postseason games, but his work there is tainted by his 2011 PED use.

9. Nick Markakis, Braves

A first-time All-Star at age 34, Markakis was having a remarkable year – until he flat wore out. Markakis was hitting .327/.390/.509 through August 12. But the Braves kept running him out there without a day off and locking him into the cleanup spot, even while it was apparent he was running down. In his last 47 games, Markakis hit .220/.305/.260 with no home runs in 173 at-bats—and no days off. He had no extra-base hits in his last 11 games.

Markakis played all 162 games at 34 years old, with 158 of them in the outfield. Only three other players ever did that: Ichiro Suzuki in 2010, Steve Finley in 2004 and Dave Parker in 1986. Great. But why?

8. Brad Hand, Indians

Until his trade to the Indians, Hand had never played on a team that won more than 77 games in his eight big league seasons. And by the time he was traded from San Diego to Cleveland July 19, the Indians were home free toward winning the American League Central. In other words, Hand has never pitched in a pressure-packed major league game in his life.

Make no mistake about his stuff: it’s nasty. He throws his slider over and over again while rarely making a mistake with it. Batters hit just .158 against it, and it’s equally effective against righties and lefties. The pressure comes from being manager Terry Francona’s most important piece in his bullpen. Francona has used Hand six times for more than one inning and brought him in seven times with inherited runners.

7. Aaron Boone, Yankees

He is a rookie manager replacing a veteran manager, Joe Girardi, who brought his team to within one win of the World Series. Boone has a tricky wild card game to run. His toughest call is how quickly to pull his starter and make use of the team’s greatest strength, the depth of its bullpen. He also has the defensive risk of Gary Sanchez behind the plate to consider. Boone has the greatest home run-hitting team of all time, and the Yankees could bludgeon opponents with the long ball. But it’s more likely that managerial decisions will come into play.

6. Joe Maddon, Cubs

Good luck with that Cubs bullpen, now that Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop are hurt and Carl Edwards lost his confidence. Jesse Chavez is his most reliable arm. He might have to deploy Cole Hamels in relief in the wild card game.

5. Roberto Osuna, Astros

MLB suspended Osuna 75 games for violating its domestic violence policy after he was charged in May with assaulting a woman in Toronto. That charge was dropped last month in exchange for Osuna agreeing to the conditions of a peace bond, which requires him not to contact the woman he allegedly assaulted and to continue counseling. He must comply with those conditions for a year or face criminal charges.

Osuna released a statement saying he would have no further comment and “I plan on moving past this and look only to the future.” But the national stage of the postseason will put his suspension back in the spotlight. Meanwhile, Osuna has been getting sharper on the mound. In September he threw 72 percent strikes, walked one batter and held hitters to a .158 batting average.

4. The Boston Red Sox

Congratulations. You won 108 games – one of only 12 teams in history to win that many. But now you have to validate all those wins. Four of those previous 11 superteams did not win the World Series: the 1906 Cubs, 1954 Indians, 1969 Orioles and the 2001 Mariners.

The minute you lose a home playoff game the postseason gets very uncomfortable. That is what happened when the 1998 Yankees lost ALCS Game 2 to Cleveland, followed by a road loss in Game 3. But Orlando Hernandez rescued them with a gem in Game 4, winning 4-0, and putting wind back in their sails.

3. Kenley Jansen, Dodgers

Jansen threw the biggest pitch of the 2017 World Series: an 0-and-2 cutter to Marwin Gonzalez when the Dodgers were three outs away from taking a two games to none lead in the series. Gonzalez whacked it for a home run, and the Astros eventually won in 11 innings. People knocked manager Dave Roberts for pulling Rich Hill after four innings, but Hill never was going to go three times through a lineup loaded with righthanded hitters at the top and Roberts’ plan worked perfectly: he got the ball to his closer with a lead in the ninth.

Jansen’s cutter too often is lacking its signature late movement, especially when it’s elevated. Jansen has allowed a staggering 13 home runs on his cutter this year, 11 of them when he goes up with the pitch. And that huge home run Gonzalez hit last year? It was an elevated cutter.

 

After the postseason, Jansen will undergo a second heart surgery to correct an irregular heartbeat.

2. Giancarlo Stanton, Yankees

Among active players, only Kyle Seager had played in more games without reaching the postseason than Stanton, who gets his first crack at October in the AL Wild Card game. Stanton posted a solid season in his first year in New York, but also whiffed a career-high 211 times.

Stanton is a typically streaky power hitter who gets in trouble with his tendency to chase pitches. He struck out 127 times on pitches out of the zone. Nobody else in baseball had more than 106. If he stays disciplined with his strike zone, he’s a game-changer.

1. David Price, Red Sox

 Eighty-six pitchers have started at least nine postseason games. Only one of them never has won a game: Price, who is 0–8 with a 5.74 ERA in those starts. He will get the ball in Game 2 of the ALDS at Fenway Park, with very little goodwill in the bank with Red Sox fans.

Until his last two starts – tuneup games, really, so don’t read too much into them – Price showed extraordinary command of his two-seam/cutter combo on both sides of the plate. But he knows this game is personally important. He can write a whole new narrative by pitching well in Game 2.

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