Sometimes, the superstars shine, thrilling the TV networks that hyped them, and the fans that adore them. But so often in Major League Baseball’s playoffs, the pivotal performers are ones you could not have imagined.
The four best-of-three wild-card series feature two division champions and two other clubs that led their respective divisions for most of the season. Let the volatility begin.
With that, USA TODAY Sports takes a look at four players that will almost certainly be pivotal in each of the four series, which begin Tuesday and conclude either Wednesday or Thursday:
Rangers-Rays: Nathaniel Lowe
They led the AL West for 160 days this year yet finished tied with the Houston Astros and then relegated to a wild card spot via tiebreaker. But since it was a three-team fight to the finish, the Texas Rangers’ September likely won’t be called a collapse.
Yet it’s hard to ignore the fact they lost three of four games to the Seattle Mariners and four of seven on a season-ending road trip to send them unhappily to Tampa Bay for the knockout round.
Getting significant contributions from Nathaniel Lowe could help reverse this trend.
We’re firmly in Don’t Let the Stars Beat You Season, and so Rays pitchers will be loathe to give nine-figure middle infielders and 1-2 hitters Marcus Semien and Corey Seager anything to hit in these three games. Lowe spent 144 games in the No. 3 hole this year, often to great success: He posted a .360 on-base percentage and a 111 adjusted OPS.
But he largely disappeared when Texas needed him the most last week.
Lowe was held hitless in five of seven games and was just 3 for 25 overall. In this series, he’ll have the revenge factor working against the team that traded him (while keeping his younger brother, Josh).
The Rangers don’t need Lowe to stir things up. Just get on base, keep the line moving, let the Rangers’ middle-of-the-order guys bat with a couple guys on base, keep pressure on the Rays.
And maybe alleviate the burden the Rangers seemingly played with last week.
Blue Jays-Twins: Pablo López
Look, there’s no getting around it: The Twins have lost 18 consecutive postseason games.
Maybe this needs to be emphasized a little bit more.
The Twins have lost 18 consecutive postseason games.
OK, there. Now, how to reverse it?
The AL Central champions got no breaks heading into the playoffs, relegated to the wild-card round because their 87-75 record was third-best among division winners. They also got a rough draw when the Toronto Blue Jays were bounced to the No. 6 seed, giving Minnesota a vibrant, occasionally explosive squad with a true ace fronting it all.
And that’s why López is the key to all this.
The right-hander struck out 234 batters in 194 innings this year and finds himself face-to-face with Kevin Gausman, who totes almost identical numbers (237 punchouts in 185 innings). These wild-card series are over practically before they can begin – decades of baseball statistics indicate a team that wins Game 1 has a 75% chance of winning a three-game series.
If López holds the line against Gausman, it not only gives the Twins a leg up but may finally quiet the talk of Twins playoff misery, their leitmotif until they change the tune. Win Game 1, and the Twins not only have the series edge but also arguably the pitching edge, with Sonny Gray and probably Joe Ryan to follow against the decent but not dominant Yusei Kikuchi and Chris Bassitt.
Diamondbacks-Brewers: Corbin Carroll
By almost any measure – including the NL standings, which indicate the Milwaukee Brewers won eight more games – the Arizona Diamondbacks are nowhere near the team they’re facing in the wild-card round.
Now, here’s a most unscientific observation: The D-backs’ best chance at victory is if their best player is an utter pain in the keister.
Corbin Carroll is instant offense, and let’s be honest: Arizona might be flying back to the desert by the time it fuses together a rally against the likes of Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and a daunting Milwaukee bullpen.
No, their best chance at scraping together runs is Carroll pulling his Roadrunner shtick – the man rapped out 65 extra-base hits this year and that, in concert with his 54 stolen bases (with a stunning 92% success rate) makes him a threat the minute he steps off the team bus.
Oh, he can also run into one – he hit 25 homers and became the first 25-50 rookie in major league history.
All that might not matter when a spent Diamondbacks pitching staff trots out an emergency measure – rookie Brandon Pfaadt – to start Game 1, while hoping ace Zac Gallen can steal a Game 2. But Arizona has virtually zero leverage in this series. It might be up to Carroll to create some.
Marlins-Phillies: Trea Turner
This is something of a big-picture pick, on the assumption that the Marlins likely won’t have enough in the tank to survive four playoff rounds while the Phillies are bent on going one step further than last year and winning the whole thing.
But goodness, what a path: The winner of this series takes on the 104-win Braves, with the 100-win Dodgers likely to follow, and then whatever AL beast awaits in the World Series.
With that in mind, the Phillies need to make quick work of Miami and put on as fresh a face as possible to take down Atlanta.
That was their path last year, when an 87-win team went into St. Louis and stunned the Cardinals, then took out the Braves and Padres to reach the Fall Classic. These Phillies won’t sneak up on anybody and getting stretched to three games by the Marlins will only further compromise them against Atlanta.
This is where Trea Turner can help.
The club’s $300 million addition struggled well into the second half, perhaps coincidentally surging at the time the notoriously harsh Phillies fan base rallied around him. Billboards were purchased. Gratitude was expressed. Turner put together a 3.6 WAR season, a bit below his dynamic standards but still plenty good.
Now, he needs to reach base at a clip closer to his .355 OBP entering this season than the .320 mark he posted. Once again, the big boys in the lineup – such as 47-homer, .197-batting Kyle Schwarber – may see their production come and go.
Yet Turner is the one guy who, wedged between Schwarber and Bryce Harper at the top of the lineup, can force opposing teams to pitch to them. Speed doesn’t slump, as they say, and Turner went a little nuts proving this point: He was 30 for 30 on stolen-base attempts this year. For the Phillies’ sake, Turner’s elite on-base skills won’t, either.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB playoffs: Wild-card round could be determined by these players