Veterans seek sweet taste of the postseason
Halladay, Huff, Young among those who have been denied
Michael Young has never felt the electricity of the postseason. Ditto for Roy Halladay and Aubrey Huff, to whom the flashbulbs of late October are foreign.
It's been a dry spell of the worst kind for these players, who are in the business of winning. But as the regular season's final stretch progresses, there is hope for several veterans who have previously found themselves sitting at home in October for an extended period of time. Each finally has a shot, in some cases his first.
The thrills and adrenaline that September brings to the ballpark are heightened among teams with serious playoff aspirations. The others are on the outside, to experience baseball's biggest month from afar and to hope for the future. Reaching late October is the ultimate goal for these players -- like Huff, who hasn't registered so much as a postseason at-bat. He came very close last season with the Tigers. But like his team, he found his postseason hopes crushed in a one-game AL Central playoff loss against the Twins. Now, his Giants are locked in a close battle with the Padres in the NL West -- and the 11-year veteran isn't taking his eyes off the prize.
"It's not about the money," Huff said. "We've made our money. We want to win. Especially me. I've never been in the playoffs in my life. I get sick and tired of going home every year and seeing guys play in the playoffs who I've played with my whole career. It's quite frustrating. So I hope I experience it once, at least."
Halladay shares Huff's sentiments. After 12 playoff-free seasons with Toronto, Halladay decided it was time to move on and agreed to a trade and contract with the Phillies to get his chance at a ring. At the press conference announcing his arrival in December, Doc was adamant that he was motivated solely by the chance to view the postseason from the mound.
"Every player strives for that," Halladay said. "I think the older you get, the longer you play in your career, the more important that becomes. [As] I've been able to establish myself and achieve things, the more I realize how important that is to me."
As if on script, the Phils are leading their division with their eyes on a third trip to the Fall Classic in as many years. The 33-year-old right-hander is one of the best pitchers of his generation to never step on a mound in the postseason. With any luck, that title won't last much longer -- not that he needs it. Halladay has been a key presence in the Phillies' playoff hopes since he arrived.
The same could be said for Young, who is in his 10th full season with the Rangers. The infielder carried a solid .286 batting average into Tuesday's action, with 20 home runs bolstering his numbers. But as a leader, Young is able to infuse a personal hunger into the Rangers clubhouse -- one that's been building for a decade. Through his first nine full seasons, Texas never got closer than the fringes of contention. But now, more than 6,000 at-bats into his career, Young is finally smelling the sweet scent of a playoff chase. Especially after his team made a statement over the weekend by sweeping the Yankees in Arlington, he's eager to see late October live rather than from the comfort of home.
"Without a doubt," said Young, whose team has an eight-game lead with 19 games to play. "We control our own destiny. We have a chance to close this thing out. The key is not losing our focus now."
While these players haven't yet tasted postseason fruit, there are others who would argue that it's just as difficult to sample the sweetness only to fall short of returning. That's the story of former Astros teammates Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman, who both approved deadline deals in July to find their way back into playoff races after a four-year absence.
A shot at the playoffs can often be a shot in the arm, as it has been for Oswalt -- who has been nothing short of dominant for the Phillies since being acquired from Houston. The right-hander is 6-1 with a 1.98 ERA since the trade, which seemingly lit a fire in him.
"I feel like I've got a new life," Oswalt said after tossing a four-hit shutout against the Mets on Sunday to move the Phils ahead of the Braves and into sole possession of first place in the NL East.
For Oswalt, who began his career on a successful Astros team that made it to the NL Championship Series in 2004 and reached but lost the World Series in 2005, things have come full circle. He first tasted success in Houston, only to see his team struggle in recent years. Now, his thirst for the postseason chase may well be quenched in Philadelphia.
While these veterans may still have plenty of seasons ahead of them, many are approaching their mid-30s. And while that's nothing in the era of Jamie Moyer, it is enough to get players like Berkman thinking about their ticking career clocks.
"I'm 34 and not necessarily ancient, but definitely getting on toward more yesterdays than tomorrows in the game," Berkman said. "You start to see your window of opportunity to win and feel the rush of the playoffs close. Where we were with Houston, it seemed like we were at least two or three years away from getting back to that level. There's a definite difference."
It's been a long time coming for these players, and each intends to do everything possible to help his team win. For Oswalt, the goal is nothing short of winning a ring.
"I've been out of playoff contention for about five years," Oswalt said. "Now, I'm on the verge of trying to get back in. These guys [the Phillies] have been there two years [in a row] and they've got a ring; I don't. Hopefully I can push them to get another one."
Bailey Stephens is a reporter for MLB.com. MLB.com reporters Bryan Hoch, T.R. Sullivan, Chris Haft and Corey Brock and associate reporter Zach Schonbrun contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.