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Pinpointing potential playoff heroes

The postseason frequently gives us unlikely heroes. For every Roberto Clemente and Mickey Mantle, there's been Scott Brosius, Gene Tenace and, only last year, Francisco Rodriguez, who had less then three weeks of major league experience when the Anaheim Angels' magic ride to the World Series began.

Some of baseball's biggest names -- Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds and Pedro Martinez -- may be the dominant forces in this year's playoffs and World Series.

Then again, October could find far less heralded players in the spotlight. Here are 10 to watch.

1. Moises Alou
First, the Cubs have to figure out a way to get into the postseason. Should they get there, however, Alou -- and not Sosa -- may hold the key to their success.

Like Bonds, Sosa won't get a lot to hit in the playoffs. Unlike Bonds, Sosa isn't disciplined enough to lay off pitches out of the strike zone. That makes Alou's role doubly critical.

Alou is finishing strong as the Cubs make their playoff push. He's hitting .367 with 10 RBI in 49 September at-bats and has a OPS of .999. And don't forget -- Alou got cheated out of the 1997 World Series MVP Award, so he has a history of rising to the October moment.

2. Carlos Lee
The focus will, rightly so, be on Frank Thomas and Magglio Ordonez if the White Sox win the AL Central.

But survey White Sox players and you'll find that Lee has actually been their MVP this season.

Lee supplies power from the No. 2 spot in the lineup. With Roberto Alomar hitting in front of him, Lee will get his share of RBI opportunities, and with Thomas and Ordonez hitting behind him, Lee won't be pitched around.

3. Nick Johnson
Others -- Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jason Giambi -- have the reputations and resumes. But Johnson has been a key part of the Yankees' offense since coming off the disabled list.

Johnson is fundamentally sound, extraordinarily patient at the plate and a superb first baseman.

He's capable of giving the Yankees some thump in the bottom half of the lineup and has the ability to consistently get on base in the top half of the lineup and make a game-saving play in the field in the late innings.

4. Bill Mueller
On a team full of players enjoying career years, Mueller is the biggest surprise of all. A career .293 hitter, Mueller is in the running for the American League batting title.

He's almost doubled his career-best home run total and has far exceeded his previous high for RBI, too. What's more, he's been remarkably consistent, never dipping below .300 after June.

His steady, even-keeled nature and professionalism are exactly the kind of traits you want in a postseason hero.

5. Johan Santana
The Twins' starting rotation has been a massive disappointment. Eric Milton missed most of the year, Joe Mays is gone now, and Brad Radke has been inconsistent.

But Santana has helped save the Twins' season. Inserted into the starting rotation, he's been 10-2 with a 2.89 ERA as a starter. Since Aug. 1, Santana has a 7-0 record and a 2.51 ERA for the resurgent Twins.

Milton's return from knee surgery could knock Santana back to the bullpen, but the Twins may want him to pitch against the lefty-leaning Yankees. It's not like anyone has done the job as the Twins have lost the last 13 matchups between the two teams.

Even pitching in relief, however, Santana could be a big factor.

6. Mark Ellis
The A's best hitters -- Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez -- have had mildly disappointing seasons, and Oakland will stand or fall on the strength of its starting pitching.

But someone has to produce some runs and make some plays, and Ellis has been one of the A's unsung contributors all season long.

A tough out at the plate and underrated defensively at second base, he could surprise with some big hits or big plays.

7. Marcus Giles
If the Braves can reverse recent history and advance in the playoffs, they'll need someone other than one of their stellar outfielders to come up big.

"He may be the single-most improved player in the National League,'' a scout says of Giles.

He's delivered unexpected pop (slugging well over .500), occasional speed and terrific range at second base.

8. Josh Beckett
While everyone fixated on Dontrelle Willis in the first half, it's been another young 20-something who's carried the load for the Marlins over the last two months.

Since Aug. 1, Beckett is 3-3 with a 2.79 ERA in nine starts while averaging slightly more than a strikeout per inning. Meanwhile, since September, he's 2-0 with a 1.31 ERA in 20 2/3 innings.

Should they earn the NL wild-card spot, the Marlins will have to find someone to contain Bonds in the Division Series. Why not Beckett?

9. Octavio Dotel
While Billy Wagner's season is overshadowed by other NL closers (Eric Gagne, John Smoltz), so too has Wagner overshadowed his teammate, Dotel.

Dotel has a super strikeout-per-inning ratio, throws (like fellow pen members Wagner and Brad Lidge) in the mid-90s and higher, and hasn't allowed a run in September.

The Astros' starting staff is fragile (Roy Oswalt) and untested (Jeriome Robertson), meaning they're going to need their relief corps to handle more innings than most staffs. Dotel will be the key in getting them from their starters to Wagner.

10. Edgardo Alfonzo
For the first five months of the season, Alfonzo was the biggest bust among free-agent signings this past offseason. His bat seemed slow, he didn't produce runs, and he offered no protection for Bonds.

But in the past 10 days, Alfonzo has looked like the Fonzie who was the Mets' best player in their last two trips to the postseason (1999, 2000). Last week, Alfonzo hit .318 with four homers and nine RBI, as if rediscovering his stroke at the right time.

Last year, it was Benito Santiago who saved his best for last for the Giants. This year, it might be Alfonzo, who has a track record of responding to the moment -- four homers in eight Division Series games and a .311 lifetime average in the LCS.

Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.