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A team with one of the worst offenses in playoff history loses the league MVP to injury as it enters the World Series. It's facing one of the most talented ballclubs ever assembled. With its biggest threat on the shelf, the team subs in a 33-year-old bench-warmer who hit one home run all season, whose bat never scared anyone in his 10-year career to that point.
Nearly two decades later, we now know the truth. The 1988 Dodgers had the powerhouse A's right where they wanted them. They had Mickey Hatcher on their side.
An effective but unspectacular player for most of his career, Hatcher served primarily as a pinch-hitter and spot starter that season. But after the Dodgers dropped Game 1 of the National League Championship Series to the Mets, manager Tommy Lasorda tapped Hatcher to be his starting first baseman for the rest of the series. When Kirk Gibson went down to injury in Game 7, Hatcher shifted to left field, replacing the team's heart and soul in the process. Today, people might remember Gibson's dramatic Game 1 World Series homer (his only at-bat of the series) or Orel Hershiser's two dominant starts that earned him series MVP honors.
But Hatcher carried the Dodgers offense. He went 7-for-19 against the A's, smashing two homers, scoring five runs and knocking in five over five games. More than the expected euphoria that comes with winning his first World Series, it was a time of redemption for a part-time player turned playoff hero.
"The Dodgers got rid of me in 1980, just before they won the World Series in '81," said Hatcher, now the hitting coach just down I-5 for the Angels. "The Twins got rid of me after the '86 season, then they won it all in '87. I always felt that I could play, that I could do the job. When I finally got my chance, I was just really excited."
This postseason, all four remaining teams have turned to replacement players to fill in for injured stars. History buffs can look to some of the fill-in phenoms of the past -- part-timers, rookies and past-their-prime vets who rose when their teams needed them most to deliver playoff glory.
Scott Rolen's health woes prompted the Cardinals to slot in Scott Spiezio at third base in the deciding Game 4 of the NL Division Series against the Padres. A playoff star and one of Hatcher's pupils with the Angels four years ago, Spiezio made his mark this time, too, smacking a single and scoring a run in the decisive four-run sixth that gave St. Louis a 6-2 series-clinching win. With Rolen's status still unsettled, Spiezio could be called on again to fill the breach. With the Mets likely to pitch around Albert Pujols as much as possible, the Cards will need as much support behind him as they can get.
If Spiezio's looking for a role model, he can look no further than Brian Doyle. Doyle's career doesn't approach even Spiezio's relatively modest résumé. In 110 games covering parts of four seasons, Doyle hit just .161 with one career homer. As a 23-year-old rookie in 1978, Doyle shuttled between the Yankees' big club and their Triple-A team five times and hit .192 with zero RBI in 52 at-bats. The Yankees kept Doyle in Triple-A for that league's playoffs, making him ineligible for the major league postseason. With standout second baseman Willie Randolph manning second base in the Bronx, though, that hardly seemed to matter.
But just before the end of the season, fate intervened, as an injury felled Randolph for the duration of the regular season and playoffs. The Yankees lobbied the league and the Royals, their ALCS opponents, to allow Doyle onto the postseason roster. Doyle responded by going 2-for-7 with a run knocked in, as the Yankees knocked out Kansas City. After the Dodgers also granted Doyle special permission to play in the World Series, the Yankees started Fred Stanley at second in Game 1, an 11-5 New York loss. Doyle returned for Game 2, but the Yanks lost again, falling behind 0-2 in the series. Doyle went 0-for-4 in Game 3 and was on the bench for Game 4, both Yankee wins to square the series.
But in Game 5 and Game 6, Doyle and light-hitting double-play partner Bucky Dent took over. Batting in the No.8 and 9 spots, Doyle rapped out six hits and scored four runs in the two games, while Dent went 6-for-8 with two runs scored and three RBI. On a team that featured Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson, Lou Piniella and other stars, the two little guys loomed largest.
"Everyone kept saying 'you've got to be nervous,'" recalled Doyle, now a pastor at First Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., after 25 years working with brothers Denny and Blake running the Doyle Baseball instructional academy. "But I wasn't nervous -- I had the time of my life. There are so many great players who never got to the playoffs, to that point. It was fun, not something to be nervous about. I was there for my glove, and whatever I did offensively would be a bonus. They just didn't know that the last two hitters would be the ones that would kill them."
This year's, the A's also lost a starting middle infielder -- in fact, they've lost both, as Bobby Crosby and Mark Ellis have been forced to watch from the bench. At short, Oakland has turned to Marco Scutaro, a utility infielder who's gotten some playing time in the past two seasons subbing for the oft-injured Crosby. Frank Thomas' pair of homers grabbed the attention in the A's ALDS sweep of Minnesota. But Scutaro smoked four doubles and knocked in six runs during the three-game sweep.
The second base replacement is an even more unlikely player, D'Angelo Jimenez. After being axed by the Rangers in June, the A's picked him up, then exiled him to Triple-A Sacramento for most of the season. Jimenez hit just .183 in 71 big league at-bats (including just 1-for-14 with the A's) and expected little more than bench duty in the playoffs. But Ellis' LDS injury forced Jimenez into the lineup. He's had a tougher time than Scutaro has, looking shaky in the field and unimpressive at the plate. Losing Crosby and Ellis cost the A's what might be the best defensive middle infield in baseball. They'll need Scutaro and Jimenez -- or "Moneyball" draft graduate and fellow fill-in Mark Kiger (who replaced Ellis on the postseason roster, even though he hasn't played a game yet in the major leagues) -- to make an impact if they want to bounce back from their 0-2 ALCS deficit.
The shortstop spot became the source of another replacement revelation for the 1985 Royals. Onix Concepcion manned the starting spot for most of the year, before giving way to Buddy Biancalana in September. Both players were light hitters, but manager Dick Howser favored Biancalana's glove, especially behind a dominant Royals' pitching staff led by Bret Saberhagen. Biancalana didn't do much with the bat in the ALCS against the Blue Jays, hitting just .222. But his glove proved effective behind the Royals' pitchers, and Kansas City pulled out a seven-game series win to make the Show Me World Series against St. Louis.
Once in the World Series, things started to click. Biancalana hit .278 over the same-game affair, with a .435 on-base percentage (thanks in part to some walks while hitting in front of the pitchers), two runs scored and two RBI. But many of his hits came at the right time. Trailing two games to none, Biancalana came up big in Game 3, going 2-for-5 with a run scored and an RBI. His one-out single in the fourth inning helped ignite a two-run rally in KC's 6-1 win. Down 3 games to 1 and on the brink of elimination, Biancalana had his best performance in Game 5, going 2-for-3 with a run scored and an RBI, reaching base three times. He was again instrumental during the game's pivotal inning, knocking in what would prove to be the winning run in the second as the Royals grabbed another 6-1 win. Saberhagen was the World Series MVP, going 2-0 while allowing just one run in two complete games. But without Biancalana's contributions, the Royals might not have made it to Game 7 to give Saberhagen a chance to spin his clinching shutout.
"Certain players can perform time and time again in pressure situations -- Montana, Jordan, Tiger Woods," said Biancalana, whose Peak Performance Baseball program trains young players to combine mental focus with physical talents on the field. "I've learned that we can train athletes to do that on a more regular basis, even if they don't have that much natural ability.
"In a nutshell that's what happened with me -- I got beyond nervousness and fear. Before the start of the World Series, 15 minutes before ABC did the introductions, that was the first time I ever said to myself 'This is really scary.' It was the first time I really acknowledged fear. Once I did that, my level of concentration was really incredible. It was an awesome experience."
The Mets will need whatever physical, mental or spiritual acuities they can muster -- an Ed "The Poet" Charles-signed four-leaf clover, maybe? -- given the look of their pitching staff heading into Game 1 of the NLCS. With Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez sidelined, the Mets will call on John Maine and Oliver Perez to pick up the slack. Maine limited the Dodgers to one run in 4.1 innings in Game 1 of the NL Division Series, helping the Mets to a three-game sweep. Perez is far more of a boom-or-bust pitcher, a young lefty with blazing stuff who also walked 68 in 112.2 innings this season with a 6.55 ERA.
Denny Doyle set the family standard for fill-in performance three years before younger brother Brian became the toast of the Bronx. Acquired for his glove early in the season from the Angels, Doyle caught fire in Boston, hitting .310 for the year after never before topping .273. He matched that .273 figure in the '75 ALCS against the A's, scoring three runs and driving in two. In the World Series, he scored three more runs while hitting a steady .267 -- the only Red Sox to bag a hit in every game of the series, a hard-fought 4-3 victory for the Reds.
He also played alongside Bernie Carbo, an outfielder and occasional DH who flashed a gaudy .409 OBP in '75. Forced to the bench with the pitcher's spot batting during the World Series, Carbo came through anyway, going 3-for-7 with two homers, including the three-run bomb in the eighth inning of Game 6 that set the stage for Carlton's Fisk foul-pole fox trot four innings later.
"I was more of a contact hitter, a guy who kept the rallies going," said Doyle, who continues to run Doyle Baseball with brother Blake after Brian's departure for the church. "Bernie was someone who could go up there and always have a strong at-bat -- his biggest swing ever was in that sixth game. Fisk had his at a time when the lights were shining. That's was a storybook series all the way through, even if the ending didn't quite come out how we hoped."
If the Tigers get nothing else from their replacement players for the rest of the playoffs, that might still be enough; Alexis Gomez's performance in Game 2 of the ALCS against the A's was that good. The little-used designated hitter, who had just six RBI all season, came through with a homer and four RBI subbing for Marcus Thames, leading Detroit to a 2-0 series lead as the series heads back to the Motor City. Gomez's Game 2 showing could prompt Tigers manager Jim Leyland to go to a semi-platoon, with Thames facing Barry Zito and other A's lefties and Gomez facing righties. Gomez's lefty bat could prove especially useful given the Game 1 calf injury to Sean Casey, which could knock him out for the rest of the series.
Rather than go for extra offense with Casey out and play both Thames and Gomez, though, Leyland tapped Neifi Perez to play short, moving Carlos Guillen to first. Aside from nearly knocking one of their best hitters into next week -- Guillen got clocked in the head by a Jason Kendall elbow while awkwardly fielding a high Brandon Inge throw in Game 2 -- the Tigers seem content to give copious at-bats to Perez, one of the worst hitters in baseball. If Perez stays in the lineup every day with Casey out, the Tigers will have added the equivalent of a decent-hitting pitcher to their starting nine; if they keep batting him second in the order, it could come back to bite them even harder.
Then again, maybe Perez does the unthinkable and starts belting the ball all over the park. It happened for light hitters like the Doyle brothers, Biancalana and Hatcher. Journeyman Kurt Bevacqua, then 37, hit .200 in 80 at-bats for the 1984 Padres before exploding to a .412 average and two homers in that year's World Series. Pressed into duty after a rugged 1995 ALDS with the Yankees sapped the Mariners' pitching staff, 22-year-old rookie pitcher Bob Wolcott threw seven sparkling innings against the loaded Indians to lead Seattle to a Game 1 ALCS win. Dusty Rhodes was so good coming off the bench that he made a career out of it. His 4-for-6 mash-fest in the 1954 World Series included a game-winning pinch-hit three-run homer in the bottom of the 10th to win Game 1, and two more huge knocks in Games 2 and 3, helping the Giants to a championship.
But even a barrage of homers by Perez wouldn't stack up to the unlikely tale of Jimmie Wilson. Already 40 years old, Wilson was a coach for the Reds in 1940 who'd catch a game once in a blue moon if the top two receivers couldn't do it. Still, Wilson's playing days were ostensibly over -- he'd already been a player/manager with the Phillies before coming to Cincinnati. But tragedy struck that summer, as backup catcher Willard Hershberger committed suicide. Still, the starter was future Hall of Famer Ernie Lombardi, meaning Wilson only needed to be ready to play once in a great while.
That opportunity presented itself in that season's World Series. Lombardi tried to fight through injuries, but managed just three at-bats. With no else to turn to, the Reds picked Wilson, crossing their fingers and hoping he wouldn't hurt them too badly. Instead, the opposite happened. Wilson raked the ball throughout the series, batting .353 in 17 ABs. His performance included a 2-for-2 day in Game 7, a game the Reds won 2-1 to beat the Tigers. Between the two teams, only one player managed a stolen base all series: the 40-year-old coach turned replacement savior. No doubt he gave himself the green light.