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09/24/12 10:00 AM ET
Postseason difference maker awaits on a club's bench
By John Schlegel / MLB.com
Very few players know the feeling of stepping up to the plate, his team's season on the line, the hopes of a franchise and a city hanging in the balance -- and unfolding himself from the bench after not playing for the previous three days, or maybe a week. Matt Stairs knows that feeling, and he knows the special joy that can follow with success in that situation. "Put it this way: When you hit a home run or you get the game-winning hit coming off the bench, I think a lot of position players and a lot of coaches and a lot of fans really respect that, because they know how hard of a situation it is," said Stairs, the former role player who owns the Major League record with 23 career pinch-hit homers in the regular season. Indeed, when Stairs famously delivered a crucial postseason pinch-hit homer for the 2008 World Series champion Phillies, he became a bigger baseball hero than ever before in what would be a career covering nearly two decades. It's a story that plays out every year to some degree: In late September and into October, situations will arise, and there's a hero sitting on someone's bench. Nobody knows who it is yet, not even the hero. But he's there, helping the clinched play out the season and doing his gig for teams still hunting for a playoff spot. Come October, we'll all know who he is. That's why at this point of the season in particular, a solid bench is a cornerstone of a championship season. "I think the bench plays a critical role in your season," says Giants manager Bruce Bochy, whose club just clinched its second National League West title in three years. "Those guys are down there late in the game, whether you're double-switching or they're pitching hitting or getting spot starts. That's why it's so important to have depth on your bench, and we think we've improved our bench." The Giants have one of the deeper bench corps in the NL, with infield spots anchored by veteran Ryan Theriot and Joaquin Arias, the Majors' hottest hitter in August, outfield depth despite some turmoil and a rookie catcher in Hector Sanchez who has freed up Buster Posey to have an award-worthy season. Bochy says Theriot, who started at second base for a good chunk of the season before Marco Scutaro arrived, is a good example of what's needed from a group of reserves. "What a job he did, and I'm sure it's not easy for him to go on the bench, but he hasn't ever complained and he's just here to help the club win," Bochy said. "It's important to have those guys know their roles and accept them." Stairs couldn't agree more with that assessment. "When you accept your role, you succeed wherever you are. If a guy's up there in the eighth inning and he's pissed off he wasn't playing, there's a pretty good chance he's not going to get a hit," said Stairs, who retired in 2011 and serves as an pregame and postgame analyst for NESN before heading into his ninth season of coaching his former high school hockey team in New Brunswick, Canada. Taking a look around baseball, not every team has its bench perfectly aligned, but almost every team has someone who could be that guy down the stretch or in October. In the NL, the Braves added the game's leading pinch-hitter in Reed Johnson (17 pinch-hits) and have Eric Hinske's noted clutch background available in reserve as they head toward a likely one-and-done Wild Card game. Remember, Hinske has a pair of postseason pinch-hit homers, one for Tampa Bay in 2008 and another for Atlanta in '10. The Nationals have a trove of backups who have delivered an NL-leading .381 on-base percentage in a pinch this season, veteran Chad Tracy leading the way with 11 hits and 10 RBIs. The Dodgers are trying to hold on in the Wild Card race with a cadre of veteran role players. In the NL Central, bench depth is not necessarily a primary asset among playoff contenders. Certainly, the surging Brewers don't have the veteran-laden bench they had a year ago, and the Pirates' bench isn't a key aspect of their step up from a year ago. While injuries have put a dent in the Cardinals' depth, Matt Carpenter has been a rookie boon with 11 pinch RBIs, the most by a Cards rookie since 1954. The newly crowned Reds, too, have seen Todd Frazier step up as a rookie to fill in key spots when Scott Rolen and Joey Votto went down, hitting 18 homers. In the American League, there are the veteran sluggers who can change the game with one swing, like the Orioles' Jim Thome did the other day in his return from injury or the Yankees' Raul Ibanez, one of several veterans in pinstripes serving as role players. The two-time defending AL champion Rangers haven't gotten a lot out of their bench this season, in part because their lineup rotation is so solid. But perhaps rookie Jurickson Profar could make a name for himself in postseason play. The Rays have a few buttons for Joe Maddon to push, but their league-high 24 pinch-hits have come in a league-high 124 at-bats, for a .198 average and .281 on-base percentage. The surprising A's have a couple of veteran bats who can fill outfield spots as well in Jonny Gomes and Seth Smith, who have shared the DH spot much of the year, and the Angels have that outfield logjam that puts Vernon Wells in a reserve spot along with young center fielder Peter Bourjous, who provides late-inning defensive options. And while the Tigers boast a strong corps of left-handed hitters off the bench, the White Sox bench has been suspect most of the season. But maybe Dewayne Wise makes a great game-saving catch, or Dan Johnson sparks another rally with a pinch-hit homer. They've been there, done that, at least. That's the thing. Nobody knew Johnson would be the guy who would deliver a two-strike, two-out pinch homer to send the Rays toward an extra-innings win that clinched a playoff spot a year ago. Somewhere out there, a hero is waiting to step from the bench into history. For Stairs, that seminal moment when being a role player becomes being a part of history came in Game 4 of the 2008 NL Championship Series. "I was coming off the bench cold, hadn't had an at-bat in eight or nine days," Stairs said. Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton had allowed two homers in 69 innings in the regular season, but Stairs squared up on a 3-1 pitch to make it 7-5 in the eighth inning. The Phillies went on to win the World Series, and Stairs was immortalized with the a great T-shirt phrase: In Case of Emergency, Use Stairs. "You're going to fail more often than you're going to succeed," Stairs said. "That's what makes it even more sweet when you do succeed, knowing that you might have failed two times prior to that, but the manager still had the confidence that you could come through in that situation with a big hit. "And when you do it, it's something very special and you definitely don't forget.
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.