Descalso and Kozma latest little guys to come up big in October
In Sunday’s NLCS opener, Carlos Beltran bashed a two-run homer that provided the margin of victory in the Cardinals’ 6-4 win, but he’s become known for such postseason heroics. David Freese also bopped a two-run homer for St. Louis, but last year’s World Series MVP has proved his October mettle as well. More surprising was the fact that the team’s four-run fourth-inning rally against the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner was kicked off by back-to-back one-out doubles by Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma, both of whom struck huge blows in the Division Series against the Nationals as well. The seventh and eighth hitters in the Cardinals’ lineup have already carved out a place in the annals of light-hitting middle infielders coming up big in October, and now they’re just padding their resumés.
The 25-year-old Descalso, the team’s everyday second baseman, hit just .227/.303/.324 during the regular season, but he’s batting .308/.321 /.615 in 30 plate appearances in October, with four of his eight hits going for extra bases. He had two big hits in the Cardinals’ NLDS Game 2 win against the Nationals, driving in the go-ahead run in the second inning with a single off Jordan Zimmermann and hitting a solo homer off Craig Stammen in the fourth. He came up even bigger in the decisive fifth game as the Cardinals’ outs were dwindling, cutting a two-run lead in half with a solo homer off Tyler Clippard to start the eighth, then stroking a game-tying two-run single with two outs in the ninth off Drew Storen.
The 24-year-old Kozma, a rookie summoned from Triple-A to take over shortstop at the end of August when Rafael Furcal went down with an injury, hit a searing .333/.383/.569 in 82 plate appearances, a drastic contrast to the .232/.292/.355 he hit at Memphis. His overall postseason line is just .208/.367/.417, but three of his five hits have been for extra bases, most notably the three-run homer he smashed off Edwin Jackson in the second inning of Game 3, breaking the game open and helping the Cardinals take a 2-1 series lead in Washington. Furthermore, after Descalso tied the fifth game and stole second base, the Nationals bypassed the opportunity to walk Kozma to bring up the pitcher’s spot; Kozma responded with the two-run single that put the team over the top, turning closer Jason Motte’s at-bat into a formality.
As MLB.com’s Matthew Leach, who covered the Cardinals beat for 10 years — right up through last year’s World Series — noted via Twitter prior to the series, “[One] thing I learned from 2011-12 Cards: if you go eight deep in your lineup, you are never ever ever dead.” Indeed, as managers, coaches and pitchers distill the work of their advance scouts to focus on ways to shut down opponents’ biggest bats, it’s the less heralded players who strike the mortal blows, often from the points in the lineup where a pitcher might try to coast. We’ve seen this plenty of times before over the years. What follows is a brief and incomplete run through a handful of such October heroes. No doubt you may have your favorites — or least favorites, players who can never be mentioned without unprintable middle names.
Billy Martin, 1953 Yankees: In the fourth of six World Series meetings between the Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1947-56, Dem Bums’ hopes were dashed again by Martin, who had come up huge the year before with a shoestring catch of Jackie Robinson’s popup with the bases loaded in the seventh inning of Game 7. The 25-year-old Martin wasn’t much of a hitter, but he set career highs with 15 homers and 75 RBIs in 1953 while batting .257/.314/.395. He followed up by winning World Series MVP honors, going 12-for-24 with eight RBIs and five extra-base hits, including two homers, one of them a game-tying shot in the seventh-inning of Game 2. In the immortal lament of losing manager Charlie Dressen, “We wuz beat by a .257 hitter.”
Al Weis, 1969 Mets: The Miracle Mets’ championship effort was aided significantly by Weis, who had hit .215/.259/.291 with two homers as the team’s utility infielder. After using him for just one plate appearance in the NLCS, manager Gil Hodges started Weis at second base in four of the five World Series games, and he went a combined 5-for-11. He drove in the game-winning run with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 2 off Dave McNally, then came back to hit a game-tying homer off the same pitcher in the seventh inning of Game 5, which the Mets ultimately won to clinch the series.
Bucky Dent and Brian Doyle, 1978 Yankees: The Yankees’ comeback from 14 games behind the Red Sox in the standings was completed when Dent, the number nine hitter in the New York lineup and a .243/.286 /.317 hitter that year, drilled a three-run seventh-inning home run over Fenway’s Green Monster in the Game 163 tiebreaker. After going 3-for-15 against the Royals in the ALCS, he stepped up and earned World Series MVP honors by going 10-for-24 with seven RBIs in the Yankees’ six-game victory over the Dodgers. Doyle, a 23-year-old rookie who got just 10 hits during the regular season, went 7-for-16 in the World Series while filling in for the injured Willie Randolph and batting eighth ahead of Dent, not bad for a man whom SI’s Ron Fimrite described as “a frail Kentucky haberdasher.”
Tim Foli, 1979 Pirates: Acquired early in the season from the Mets, the feisty Foli took over the regular shortstop duties and set career standards in batting average and on-base percentage by hitting .288/.330/.340, this from a career .251/.283/.309 hitter. After going 4-for-12 with three RBIs agains the Reds in the NLCS, he went 10-for-30 vs. the Orioles in the World Series, with three RBIs in Game 5 via a seventh-inning triple and an eighth-inning single that helped the Pirates stave off elimination; they would rally from a 3-games-to-1 deficit to win the series in seven.
Spike Owen, 1986 Red Sox: Acquired from the Mariners on Aug. 19, Owen hit just .183/.283/.238 — 23 hits in 42 games – after taking over Boston’s starting shortstop duties, but he batted .366/.449/.415 with 15 hits in two thrilling seven-game postseason series. He went 4-for-4 in the sixth game of the ALCS against the Angels, added two more hits in Game 7, and in the World Series against the Mets, he had three-hit games in Boston’s Game 2 win and Game 6 loss (the Bill Buckner game).
Mark Lemke, 1991 Braves: A 25-year-old second baseman, Lemke had hit just .234/.305/.312 with two homers and 15 extra-base hits as the part-time second baseman for the worst-to-first Braves, who jumped from 65 to 94 wins in a year’s time and earned a World Series berth against the Twins. Lemke went 10-for-24 with a double and three triples in the seven-game series and produced several big moments. His two-out 12th inning single drove in the winning run off Rick Aguilera in Game 3, he himself scored the winning run after hitting a ninth-inning triple off Mark Guthrie in Game 4 and he added two more triples and drove in three runs in a Game 5 rout. Had Jack Morris not pitched a 10-inning shutout in Game 7, he might have won MVP honors, but as it was he continued with the October heroics for the Braves, most notably going 12-for-27 with three extra-base hits and five RBIs in the 1996 NLCS against the Cardinals, and collecting 63 postseason hits for his career.
Luis Sojo and Jose Vizcaino, 2000 Yankees: Chuck Knoblauch’s throwing problems forced Yankees manager Joe Torre to cobble together a second base solution that centered around Sojo, a lumpy 35-year-old utilityman who had been reacquired from the Pirates in August amid a career year with the bat (.286/.325/.422). Sojo went just 3-for-16 in the Division Series against the A’s, but he drove in five runs; most notably, his two-run seventh-inning double off Kevin Appier broke open Game 2. He went 6-for-23 in the ALCS against the Mariners, and while he was limited to eight plate appearances while splitting time with Jose Vizcaino in the “Subway Series” against the Mets, he drove in a run in the Yankees’ 3-2 Game 4 win, then came off the bench to deal the decisive blow in Game 5. Pinch-hitting for Andy Pettitte against a flagging Al Leiter in the ninth inning, he drove in Jorge Posada with the go-ahead run via what Leiter later called “a 15-hopper,” with Scott Brosius scoring as well after centerfielder Jay Payton’s throw hit the sliding Posada and bounced away. Three Mariano Rivera outs later, the Yankees had their third straight title. Vizcaino’s postseason included a pair of pinch-hit RBI in the ALCS, and a four-hit Game 1 of the World Series, capped by a walk-off single against Turk Wendell in the bottom of the 12th inning. The heroics of these two inspired a certain baseball nut to create the Futility Infielder web site in the spring of 2001.
David Eckstein, 2006 Cardinals: Eckstein wasn’t a bottom-of-the-lineup type like most of the aforementioned players, but at 5-foot-6, he definitely qualifies as one of the little guys. The Cardinals’ leadoff hitter already had a 9-for-27 World Series performance under his belt as part of the 2002 Angels, and he came up big for St. Louis in the 2005 Division Series as well. But it was in the 2006 World Series, when the 83-78 Cardinals completed their unlikely run, that he really shined, earning MVP honors by hitting .364/.391/.500 within 23 PA in the Redbirds’ five-game win over the Tigers. He went 4-for-5 with three doubles and two RBIs in Game 4, the last of which drove in the decisive run off Joel Zumaya in the bottom of the eighth, then collected two hits, two RBIs and one run scored in Game 5, a 4-2 win that clinched the series.