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October 18, 2016

MLB playoffs: A dozen players making a difference

Terry Francona the Cleveland Indians are one win away from punching a ticket to the World Series.

The Indians took the field in Toronto this afternoon with the opportunity to clinch their first entry into the World Series since 1997. The Indians have advanced to the World Series just five times since 1901 (when they were known as the Cleveland Blues).

And it’s being buried by the Chicago Cubs’ own lengthy title drought, but the Cleveland Indians have not won a World Series since 1948, before either Willie Mays or Vin Scully began their respective big league careers, when Charlie Manuel was only four years old, and when Harry Truman was president.

The Indians stand a good chance of completing a clean four-game sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays today because of the man they’ll be sending to the mound. He’s one of a dozen difference makers in the 2016 postseason.

The aces

While you need more than a rotation of aces to win in the postseason, as the 2011 Phillies showed, it’s a very nice luxury to have at least one legitimate No. 1 starter to hand the ball to a couple of times in a postseason series. Ask the recent San Francisco Giants teams (and the Phillies in 2008) how that worked out.

Corey Kluber takes the ball today in Toronto for the Indians. All Kluber has done so far this postseason has led his team to a pair of shutout wins (over Boston in Game 2 of the ALDS and in Game 1 vs. Toronto).

Kluber, the 2014 American League Cy Young Award winner, and a strong candidate for the award again this year, suffered one of his worst starts of 2016 in his only appearance in Toronto back in July, but we’re not sure that’ll be relevant to the game today, with the motivation to send his team to the Series.

Jon Lester, who may be the favorite for the NL Cy Young, has been nearly as dominant for the Chicago Cubs as Kluber has been for the Indians. He’s allowed one earned run in 14 innings (two starts) in the 2016 postseason and should be in line to take the ball at Dodger Stadium for an important Game 5.

Lester has a 2.57 ERA with a .591 opponents OPS in his last 10 postseason starts, dating back to 2013. It’s difficult to think of a pitcher you’d rather have on the mound in October …

…unless Clayton Kershaw is able to come back on short rest and also start on Game 5. Kershaw, who made his postseason debut as a 20-year-old against the Phillies back in the 2008 NLCS, is the game’s best pitcher and his career postseason stats are a little misleading.

Kershaw was simply dominant at Wrigley Field on Sunday night to even up the NLCS with the Cubs. If the Dodgers can hold onto their current home field advantage this week in L.A., and get Kershaw to pitch Thursday, it could also put them in position to use him out of the ‘pen in a Game 7. If that happens, throw out everything that tells you the Cubs are this postseason’s overwhelming favorite to win it all.

The two-way kids

If Francisco Lindor isn’t the best defensive player in baseball, he’s surely in the conversation. The Cleveland Indians second-year shortstop covers so much ground it brings to mind the franchise’s dynamic middle infield duo of Roberto Alomar and Omar Vizquel the last time they went to the World Series. And Lindor, the runner-up for the AL Rookie of the Year in 2015, can hit, too: he has two home runs in six postseason games this month (including the game-winning two-run shot in Game 1 against Toronto) and is hitting .364 in the ALCS.

If Lindor hasn’t been the most exciting position player to watch in the 2016 postseason, that that honor probably goes to Javier Baez, a former top shortstop prospect who has taken to the role as a super utility player and has starred at second base this month. Baez’s numbers were fine in the regular season (.273/.314/.423, 14 home runs in 142 games) but he’s raised his game this postseason (.391/.417/.609 with a home run and two doubles in six games) in standing out among a talented crop of talented Cubs young position players.

While the Dodgers best young player (Corey Seager) has been quiet aside from a pair of home runs against Washington in the NLDS, second-year center fielder Joc Pederson has managed to do something to help his team in nearly every game this postseason, whether it’s working a walk, stealing a base, or making a play in center field. Both Pederson (25 home runs, .847 OPS in the regular season) and Baez are examples of why it’s best to stay patient with young players in the early part of their careers (read: don’t fret just yet about Maikel Franco).

The quiet cog

Nearly every October some complementary role player, a guy who’s never been to an All-Star game, turns into a postseason star. (We’re looking at you, Cody Ross and Jim Leyritz).

Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner fits this mold to a “T.”

Dating back to last postseason, Turner has hit safely in 10 of his last 12 playoff games. Overall he’s slashed an impressive .405/.519/.667 in 14 career playoff games with eight extra-base hits, more walks than strikeouts (7 to 6), and dependable infield defense.

If you’re looking for an underrated player who can make a real impact on the NLCS (and the World Series, should the Dodgers advance) look no further than Turner.

The Blue Jays bats

Just because you’re labeled a “difference maker” doesn’t mean it’s for positive reasons. Toronto’s formidable top of the order has been on both sides of that equation already this postseason, and if they hope to play beyond Tuesday afternoon, Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, and Troy Tulowitzki have to get right again.

With apologies to the young Cubs, there isn’t a more fearsome foursome in any postseason lineup than this Blue Jays quartet. Cole Hamels and the Texas Rangers saw that in the ALDS, when Bautista, Donaldson, Encarnacion, and Tulowitzki hit .400 (20-for-50) with a .455 OBP, four home runs, four doubles, and a triple in a three-game sweep.

But, entering Tuesday, only Donaldson carried that over into the ALCS. The trio of Bautista, Encarnacion, and Tulowitzki were hitting .129 (4-for-31) with a .250 OBP, 10 strikeouts and just one extra-base hit in the first three games against Cleveland.

With Bautista and Encarnacion set to hit the free-agent market next month, this is likely the last run for the Jays vaunted lineup.

The hybrid

It’s not often that you can say this about a relief pitcher, but with the way Francona has employed him, left-hander Andrew Miller has been the single biggest difference maker of the 2016 postseason.

Miller has faced 17 Blue Jays batters in the first three games of the ALCS. He’s struck out 13 of those 17 batters.

Miller, who began the season as the Yankees closer, has been asked to be versatile and durable in the Indians’ pen, coming in to “save” games as early as the fifth inning or to close games out in the eighth. He’s answered the call each time, having allowed just four hits in nine innings over five games striking out 20 and walking just one.

Better yet, at least from a big picture standpoint, Miller is changing the way major league managers should utilize their “closers.” Games often become make or break well before the ninth inning.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21