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10 Unlikely Baseball Playoff Heroes

baseball postseason heroes
Mike Powell/Matthew Stockman/Jim McIsaac, Getty Images

It seems like every postseason, some previously unknown or under-appreciated player plays a major role in his team playoff victory. This year’s winner so far is Raul Ibanez, who helped propel the Yankees to a stunning win on Wednesday after he pinch hit for Alex Rodriguez in the ninth inning and homered to tie the game against Baltimore. Then it was Ibanez again in the 12th, this time homering to win the game for New York.

Here’s a look back at some of the most unlikely star company Ibanez now keeps in the annals of baseball history:

AARON BOONE, 2003

Slumping during the ALCS against Boston, the Yankees’ Aaron Boone rode the pine for Game 7. But a long game and the need for a deep bench helped turn Boone from a chump into a champ as he belted an 11th-inning pitch into the left-field stands. It capped off a remarkable comeback by the Bronx Bombers, as they rallied back from a 5-2 deficit to tie it in the eighth. Although the Yanks would go on to lose the World Series to the Marlins, Boone remains a fan favorite to this day for his contribution in the clutch.

EDGAR RENTERIA, 1997

It was one of the most competitive World Series in recent history, pitting the Indians and the Marlins against each other. The Indians’ closer couldn’t seal the game in the ninth inning, allowing a couple of singles and a sac fly that had the Marlins suddenly tied up with a chance for the improbable win. Renteria stepped to the plate to face Indians ace Charles Nagy. He singled off of Nagy’s glove, resulting in a dramatic victory for the Marlins.

JIM LEYRITZ, 1996

The Braves had a 2-1 lead entering Game 4 of the World Series and appeared poised to grab another W. With one swing, a three-run homer, Leyritz took the Yankees from down to winning comfortably in the eighth inning. He was brought in as a defensive replacement, but Leyritz provided the offense New York needed. They’d go on to win the game in the 10th and soon afterward took home the first title of their dynasty run in the late ’90s.

FRANCISCO CABRERA, 1992

During Game 7 of the NLCS against Pittsburgh, the Braves needed some big-time help. It came in the form of obscure player Francisco Cabrera, the last players the team had available off the bench to pinch hit. He had been in the minors until the end of August. But Cabrera proved to be the right man for the job, singling home two Braves for a walk-off win.

JACK MORRIS, 1991

His performance that postseason is one for the ages; it included a classic 1-0, 10-inning duel with the Braves’ John Smoltz in Game 7. Not bad for a 36-year-old guy who got offered a mere one-year contract just to prove that he had anything left in his tank. Morris wound up starting for the Twins three times that series (after posting 18 wins in the regular season) and tossed 10 innings of shutout baseball. He got MVP for his part.

BILLY HATCHER, 1990

A largely forgotten bench player, Hatcher had a brief few weeks when he was the talk of baseball. During the 1990 postseason, he hit .519, impressive in its own right. However, it was his .750 average in the Reds’ four-game World Series sweep of the A’s that really got people’s attention. The Reds weren’t expected to compete with the heavily favored A’s, but thanks to the unexpected lift that Hatcher provided, Cincy sailed through without a hitch. Hatcher still holds several postseason records.

KIRK GIBSON, 1988

Everyone has seen the footage, but what you may not realize is that Gibson’s famous shot took place during Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. The Dodgers were underdogs in the series, and Gibson’s homer propelled them to a surprising win—especially considering that Gibson had been sidelined with leg injuries for much of the game, subbing in as a pinch hitter. Down 4-3 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, Gibson did what every kid dreams of: hitting a walk-off homer to win a World Series game.

OZZIE SMITH, 1985

He was the Cardinals’ leader, but not because of his power. His stolen bases and his defense helped drive St. Louis to 101 wins, and during Game 5 against the Dodgers Smith stepped up to the plate and showed what else he could do. Batting lefty, Smith came up with a 2-2 tie. He’d never hit a home run in his previous 3,000 left-handed major league at-bats. But this time was different, a night for a first. Jack Buck’s famous call of that moment remains firmly implanted in the heads of many Cardinals’ fans.

BILL MAZEROSKI, 1960

This Pirates team had numerous stars, but it was their lesser-known infielder who hit the most famous home run in baseball history. In the bottom of the ninth of Game 7, with the game tied 9-9, Maz ended the game by homering over the left-field wall. In a surprising twist, neither Maz nor any of his Pirates’ teammates took MVP honors. It went instead to the Yankees’ Bobby Richardson, the only time in history when a losing team’s player won the MVP. But Maz will always be remembered anyway.

DON LARSEN, 1956

On the sport’s biggest stage, Larsen delivered a game for the ages: a perfect game in Game 5, helping the Yankees toward a seven-game series win over the Dodgers. It’s not as if Larsen was expected to deliver it, either: He gave up a 6–0 lead in Game 2 and only lasted 1.2 innings. His perfect game earned him series MVP honors and it’s helped keep him a household name despite his average career numbers. The World Series can truly turn someone ordinary into someone extraordinary.

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