Ten most pivotal players as baseball's stretch run nears
Posted: Monday July 21, 2003 1:37 AM
Updated: Monday July 21, 2003 8:14 AM
There are still 10 weeks left in the regular season, but the pennant races are starting to heat up. So which players will have the biggest impact in the playoff chase down stretch? SI.com breaks down the 10 most pivotal players on the teams still fighting for their postseason lives.
Randy Johnson, Diamondbacks
Randy Johnson's only victory came on April 27.
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Randy Johnson has accounted for 1.8 percent of Arizona's win total this season. And the Diamondbacks still are only one game out of the NL wild-card race.
Knee surgery knocked out the Big Unit for nearly 2 1/2 months. Fellow ace Curt Schilling returned last week after missing a month. Johnson, however, got off to an un-Unit-like slow start even before injuring his knee. He had a 6.94 ERA in four starts -- inflated by a 10-earned-run start against the Brewers of all teams -- and has only one win.
Johnson finally returned Sunday and was a little rusty, losing to the Padres 3-2. He even served up a homer to -- gasp! -- Lou Merloni. But adding Johnson now is almost like Arizona adding an ace at the deadline. In the past two seasons, no pitcher has been better after the All-Star break than the Unit: He's 22-3 with a 2.19 ERA.
Matt Morris, Cardinals
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What's wrong with Matt Morris? That's the big question in St. Louis. Is he injured? Is it simply a flaw in his mechanics? Whatever the answer, the Cardinals need Morris to return to his pre-June form ... and soon.
Morris, who won a combined 39 games the past two seasons, started the season with a 2.37 ERA in his first 12 starts. But since the start of June, Morris has a 9.09 ERA in seven outings. Without Morris in All-Star form, the Cardinals' chances in the NL Central take a huge hit.
Shawn Green, Dodgers
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The Dodgers were forced to trade for Jeromy Burnitz and sign Rickey Henderson largely because of Shawn Green's surprising mediocrity. Since June 1, Green has hit just .205. And the power has disappeared. After hitting 49 and 42 homers the past two seasons, respectively, Green has slumped to just 10 in 2002 -- one fewer than Orioles shortstop Deivi Cruz.
Unfortunately for the Dodgers, September recently has been Green's worst month. In the past three seasons, he has hit only 11 homers in a combined 272 at-bats. Green hit 12 last June alone in just 93 ABs.
Juan Gonzalez, Only He Knows
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Juan Gonzalez can punch his own ticket. Whenever -- and more important, wherever -- he does, it will have perhaps the biggest impact on the pennant race. Gonzalez, who already used his no-trade clause to shoot down a deal to the Expos, has long been rumored to be heading to the Yankees ... who could have had him two years ago if not for Gonzalez's veto power.
But Gonzalez's latest calf injury could play an even bigger role in which teams decide to chase the picky but talented outfielder.
Pat Burrell, Phillies/Paul Konerko, White Sox
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We could have easily said "Pat Konerko" or "Paul Burrell" because these two struggling sluggers have had mirror-image careers.
Since joining the White Sox, Konerko has averaged 26 homers and 95 RBIs in four seasons. For Burrell, the numbers are an eerily similar 27 and 95 in three years with the Phillies. In 2003, though, both are having problems staying above the Mendoza line.
Philadelphia and Chicago are two teams that haven't been able to fully cope with high expectations. A big reason why is the performance (or lack thereof) from their young stars.
Erubiel Durazo, A's
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Where is the power hitter the A's thought they were acquiring? Durazo averaged one homer every 15.95 at-bats in four teasing seasons in Arizona. But since coming to Oakland, the lefty has hit one every 31 (10 homers in 310 at-bats). His slugging percentage is down nearly 60 points from a season ago.
Durazo is on pace for a career high in RBIs (80), but at his current pace, it will come with the same amount of home runs (16) -- in nearly 300 more at-bats. An Oakland offense that ranks ninth in the American League in homers desperately needs more production from Durazo in the second half.
The Future Cubs Center Fielder
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Corey Patterson's season-ending knee injury left a huge hole in the Cubs offense. And surely Chicago won't want to use Tom Goodwin in an everyday role in center field. So the Cubs decision on how they will upgrade in center will be critical toward determining their NL Central fate.
Will it be Kenny Lofton? Certainly, Dusty Baker remembers Lofton helping lift his Giants to the World Series last season. At 36, Lofton has put together a solid season (.278, nine homers and 17 steals) for the Pirates.
Johan Santana, Twins
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Among the five Twins pitchers with more than 80 innings under their belt, Kyle Lohse's 4.78 ERA is the lowest. Yet it took Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire until the middle of July to insert Johan Santana and his 2.84 ERA into the rotation for back-to-back turns.
The Twins' team ERA 4.71 -- yes, lower than the lowly Tigers' 4.66 -- has been their Achilles' heel this season, the main reason why they're 6 1/2 games behind the Royals. Santana isn't a miracle worker, but certainly he can help stabilize their underachieving rotation.
Byung-Hyun Kim, Red Sox
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It wasn't clear at the time of the May 29 trade whether Kim would be a starter or reliever, but he has gravitated back to the role he played so well in Arizona.
Since Kim was moved to the closer's role on July 1, he has not allowed a run in 9 1/3 innings, and the Red Sox bullpen has four wins, five saves, and a 1.99 ERA. Kim has taken pressure off Alan Embree, Chad Fox and Brandon Lyon and should help the Red Sox keep pace with the Yankees.