A.J. Pierzynski, St. Louis Cardinals
St. Louis fans have been spoiled by Yadier Molina over the last half decade, having watched their backstop develop into one of the finest in baseball. His four straight All-Star appearances from 2009-13 are a testament to his consistency behind (and standing next to) the plate. Unfortunately, he was recently ruled out for 8-12 weeks with a thumb injury, leaving the Cardinals with large shoes to fill.
Enter Pierzynski, a catcher with a personality that has often overshadowed his game. He’s not going to fool anyone into thinking he’s Molina, but he’s a serviceable veteran that is an upgrade over incumbent backup Tony Cruz. For a Cardinals team that gets by mainly on the strength of their top starters, that will be enough. If they can get more out of him than a short stretch as a fill-in, it’s a big bonus for the Cardinals.
And for fans of the game in general, having Pierzynski at the heart of a division race is sure to lead to some fireworks. He’s a brash character who will surely get into it with some of his opponents, a welcome screwball that’ll keep people on their toes.
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Jeff Samardzija, Oakland As
Set free from a Chicago Cubs team that is flailing for what feels like the umpteenth-straight season, Samardzija has been given a chance to show what he can do for the AL West-leading Athletics. Oakland has ridden a potent lineup to the division lead – they’re currently first in runs scored – but to close out the Los Angeles Angels, they needed to add another capable arm behind Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir.
Samardzija is far from a sure thing given his numbers in recent years – he had a 4.34 ERA just one season ago in Chicago – so he has a chance to prove that the first half of this season was more than a mirage. For the first time in his career, he has the chance to prove his chops on a team that really matters. It’s a sink-or-swim moment for the 29-year-old Samardzija, and if he can hold up his end of the bargain, the As just may be favorites when the playoffs begin.
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Josh Hamilton, Los Angeles Angels
When you play on the same team as Mike Trout, anyone can be considered a sleeper – even those with nine-figure contracts. The Angels do-it-all star is having another fantastic year in the two-hole of the lineup, adding on to an unbelievable legacy that is still in its early stages.
Hamilton has spent chunks of this season on the DL, and when he’s been able to play for Los Angeles he has only shown flashes of the power that he is expected to bring to the lineup. While Hamilton’s average is up almost 40 points above last year’s closing figure – a good sign for a hitter who sometimes falls victim to free-swinging tendencies – the Angels need him to be more of a threat to clear the bases than he has been thus far in 2014. To have a shot at standing toe-to-toe with Oakland, the Angels need Hamilton at his very best.
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Division and Wild Card races are beginning to heat up as Major League Baseball’s second half rages on. The finish line – at least the one that marks the end of the exhausting regular season – is fast approaching. Between now and the beginning of October, the difference makers won’t be top-of-the-line stars, but their teammates who turn it on down the stretch.
Unearthing the less-heralded players who will suddenly explode down the stretch is quite the challenge, even in an era scrutinized down to every last pitch. But we’ve got your back. Here are a few players whose names you might recognize that have the chance to swing their respective races.
Follow Kyle on Twitter at @NeubeckNBA