For the first time ever, four wild-card teams will battle it out in the brand new one-game, sudden-death format on Friday that sends the loser packing and the winner into a League Division Series against the top seed.
With the St. Louis Cardinals playing the Atlanta Braves and the Baltimore Orioles taking on the Texas Rangers, it's almost guaranteed to be a wild day. Chances are a hero or two will emerge that currently flies under the radar with casual fans. Call them sleepers. Call them unheralded role players. In some cases maybe even late bloomers. Call them whatever you like, they will step forward today and become household names by tomorrow.
Here are four players who could step up big on the big stage. Perhaps it will be one of them, perhaps it'll be somebody deeper down the bench. We'll have to watch to find out.
Kris Medlen, Atlanta Braves pitcher
Casual baseball fans have finally started to learn his name, but lost in all of the hoopla surrounding playoff scenarios, Miguel Cabrera's remarkable Triple Crown run and even teammate Chipper Jones' retirement has been the emergence of starting pitcher Kris Medlen. The 26-year-old right-hander gets the ball for Fredi Gonzalez's squad Friday, and since joining the Braves' rotation on July 31, Medlen has not only been their unexpected ace, he's been the best pitcher in the National League hands down. If you need numbers to back that up, well, check out the 9-0 record and the sparkling 0.97 ERA he's posted over that stretch, and also note the pitcher of the month award he received in not only August, but September too.
Medlen's stuff has been lights outs and when he gets the call for the Braves the team has been unbeatable. That's not a stretch or a slight exaggeration, that's a fact. Entering Friday's game, Atlanta has won 13 straight games in which he's appeared. And when you go back to his previous stint as a starter in 2010, the Braves have won each of his last 23 starts.
Like I said, lights out. But if there's any one team that can find its way out of the darkness in October, it's the Cardinals. That makes for an intriguing matchup I'd say.
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Pete Kozma, St. Louis Cardinals shortstop
When Rafael Furcal went down with a season-ending elbow injury at the end of August, St. Louis was forced to turn to Pete Kozma — their 2007 first-round pick and one-time promising prospect — to fill the gap. I'm sure that made a lot of Cardinals fans uneasy at the time, considering Kozma had struggled mightily in the minor leagues, posting a mere .652 OPS and .236 average over four seasons. But, as their luck would have it, Kozma has managed to outperform those numbers by a wide margin so far.
Of course the sample size is far too small to say Kozma has turned the corner in his career and will turn into a serviceable major leaguer long term, but Mike Matheny won't be too concerned with that when filling out his lineup Friday afternoon. Kozma's .333 average and .964 OPS over 25 games have provided a significant boost to their offense in the here and now, and as long as he sustains it one more day, the Cardinals will be in a much better position to advance.
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Robbie Ross, Texas Rangers relief pitcher
Robbie Ross has been a stablizing force in Ron Washington's bullpen this season with his 6-0 record and 2.24 ERA over 57 appearances. That's pretty solid for a veteran reliever, let alone a 23-year-old rookie like Ross. There was even a 21-appearance stretch from May 17 to July 17 where Ross didn't allow a single earned run. To make that even more impressive, the stretch covered 30 innings, meaning he was often asked to record more than three outs.
There was some talk of stretching Ross out and placing him in the rotation in June, but the team ultimately decided his versatility was needed in the bullpen. I don't think anyone could disagree based on the .239 average he's allowed against right-handed hitters and the .220 average against lefties. It doesn't matter who Ross is asked to get out, or even when or how many, he'll slot in anywhere and give you a chance. In one game, that makes him pretty valuable — especially against a Baltimore Orioles team that has won so many close games.
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Chris Davis, Baltimore Orioles outfielder/designated hitter
At one time Chris Davis was a big part of the Texas Rangers plans. You could even say he was viewed as a can't miss prospect for awhile, but every time he got his chance to crack their lineup, he'd swing and miss, repeatedly. On July 30, 2011, the Rangers finally tired of Davis' slow development — and lack of contact — shipping him off to Baltimore along with Tommy Hunter for reliever Koji Uehara. Needless to say, the Orioles are glad they did, because the 26-year-old slugger is finally hitting his stride, and everything in sight.
OK, maybe that last part was a stretch. He did still strike out 166 times while only drawing 37 walks, but he also reached career highs in home runs (33) and RBIs (85) — and when the Orioles needed him most down the stretch, Davis delivered by homering in six straight games leading into Wednesday's finale. In these one-game scenarios, sometimes all it takes is one or two good swings from the hottest hitter in your lineup. Chris Davis is the hottest hitter in any of the four lineups we'll be seeing Friday save for perhaps Adrian Beltre.
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