In the 2003 National League Championship Series, my Chicago Cubs went up three games to one while visiting the then-Florida Marlins in their house. One more win would have put us into the World Series and been a reversal of fate for the Cubs organization.
On the road to that Game 5, I found my greatest playoff moment. Ten years later, that would be my only postseason. As I have learned, it is extremely challenging to make the playoffs -- especially year after year, as the Tigers and Cardinals have done recently.
These teams are composed of players acquired by the best and worst of general management, the best and worst of player development. Happenstance at times, good health at others. Maybe dumb luck plays a part. An October star can be an iconic treasure to one team or the guy who got cut the first week of camp in another organization, yet he can still make an impact when the world is watching. But consistent with baseball, you may get three strikes working for you during the lifespan of a career, and every once in a while the biggest and maybe last opportunity of all puts you in a position to affect a championship.
So from Jose Iglesias to Ricky Nolasco, there are a whole host of players who began the season with big personal question marks. Maybe they were on a team that was spinning its wheels or trying to break into the mix. But now those players are key components in helping their teams get that ring. Despite the notions that playoff games are won by the likes of David Ortiz or Clayton Kershaw, the postseason is the one time of year where it is clear that any player can influence any game, at times heroically. In fact, that is the rule, not the exception.
We have seen this in the Red Sox's ability to bring in Craig Breslow, Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara to close out a game. We know about Jon Lester and John Lackey, Big Papi and Dustin Pedroia, but Boston's pitching -- in particular, its bullpen -- has held down a very capable offense in Detroit. These three relievers have seen other opportunities in their careers, seen their ups and down, but now they anchor the Red Sox's bullpen.
On the NL side, the Cardinals have thrown a number of different arms at the Dodgers. Seth Maness does not light up the radar gun, but he makes his pitches and gets ground balls. The Cardinals turned three double plays in Game 4 -- every one worth gold in changing momentum and crushing comebacks.
After signing with Texas for the 2003 season, I was traded to the Cubs right before the July 31 deadline. I went from last-place struggles to the battles of being in the thick of a playoff race. But then my starter status was replaced by platoon, pinch-hitter, pinch-runner status, and the ego had to be checked at the door so that I could be ready for then-manager Dusty Baker.
In Game 3 of the NLCS, I would come off the bench, pinch hit, and get what ended up being the game-winning triple to help the Cubs go up two games to one. I was "unlikely," even though, as the game progressed, I saw myself as "likely."
Every pinch-hit late in a close game is a game-changing moment. Shane Robinson's home run in the seventh inning of Tuesday night's NLCS Game 4 gave the Cardinals an insurance run and some breathing room in their 4-2 victory over the Dodgers.
Your ability to perform in October has nothing to do with your batting average during the season or what you hit with runners in scoring position against the Marlins during the season. In fact, I got my triple off a pitcher (Braden Looper) whom I did not have a lot of success against. Right-handed hitters like me usually face lefties if the manager knows what is best for his postgame interview. Not this time; I got the call.
So maybe it's the Tigers' Don Kelly who gets that call in the ALCS, or maybe it's the Dodgers' Skip Schumaker. Reliever Carlos Martinez got that call in NLCS Game 4 and gave the Cardinals two scoreless innings. Oakland's Stephen Vogt got that call and delivered against the Tigers in the ALDS.
You never know who will change a game on any given day despite the power of great players smelling great moments to create as David Ortiz did against the Tigers with his eight-inning grand slam in ALCS Game 2.
I still carry my moment with me knowing that at the time, it was declared the best moment of my career, but even then I knew that was oversimplifying it. It was a year when I had lost my father, a year of surgery and trades, a year of career doubt, so I knew the good fortune of being on a playoff team was a gift. The hit was the icing on the cake.
The playoffs do that. They make history almost as effectively as they erase stereotypes. You can come from anywhere to arrive at a moment that feels like you were born to be there -- that it is your time and that your opponent is just an extra in the blockbuster movie you are starring in. I would imagine that players who shine this time of year have this feeling quite often in the postseason. They make it personal, not out of animosity for their opponent as much as it is the curiosity of what magic you can perform without a black top hat and a two-way mirror.
I contributed in the only opportunity I would get in that 2003 NLCS. We fell short as a team and that stung, and it will always sting in some way. But while we as players may believe in the destiny or "our time" to excel, someone on the opposing team is waging that same internal battle, shutting out doubt and overcoming days or weeks without at-bats or pitching to take the best swing or make the best pitch of his life.
It is infinitely possible that in the coming days, we will see things that we couldn't have imagined. That, friends, is playoff baseball.