MLB: Each Contender’s X-Factor for Final Month

Now that we have a month left of the regular season for Major League Baseball, the playoffs are near. There are several tight division and wild card races that won’t be sorted out until the final out on October 3. What is each contender’s biggest x-factor? This will be the player that not necessarily be the team’s best player, but their performance will be important to help them into the postseason and further.

National League

Los Angeles Dodgers: Clayton Kershaw

The Dodgers have had to shut down Kershaw twice with left forearm inflammation and they hope he can return this month. The question is if he can return and pitch meaningful innings, while the Dodgers rotation needs a bit of a pickup outside of their top three (Walker Buehler, Max Scherzer, Julio Urias). The Dodger offense is a wagon, and if Kershaw can come back and pitch as well as in the 2020 postseason, all bets will be on them repeating as World Series champions.

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Milwaukee Brewers: Christian Yelich

The Brewers extended their commanding lead in the NL Central to 10.5 games last night and their pitching staff is unmatched. If they could get Yelich going, their chances of going deep in the postseason would grow larger. The former MVP has struggled a bit the last two seasons, but he did have a .859 OPS in August. Yelich only has eight homers after back-to-back seasons of 35+ homers in 2018 (36) and 2019 (44).

Atlanta Braves (1st in NL East, +1.5): Huascar Ynoa

Ynoa recently returned from a long stint on the injured list from a fractured right hand he suffered in May. In three starts since returning, the right-hander struck out 16 in 17 1/3 innings while walking five and giving up five runs. The Braves will have to get solid starts out of their rotation to hold onto the slim lead in the NL East, and that starts with Ynoa.

San Francisco Giants: Anthony DeSclafani

The Giants saw their lead in the NL West disappear last night after the Dodgers won and San Francisco lost to the Brewers. One thing that could cause them to completely decline is their pitching staff in danger of falling flat. Johnny Cueto hit the injured list last week with a right flexor strain, as DeSclafani returned from an IL stint of his own. The right-hander will need to eat up some quality innings for the Giants down the stretch.

Cincinnati Reds: Michael Lorenzen

The Reds’ reliever returned from a right shoulder strain that had him out all season on July 16. After making just one start, Lorenzen went down with a right hamstring strain but returned after 11 days. So far this season, he has only allowed four runs – all in one outing – in 14 2/3 innings over 14 appearances. He has also allowed a .196 batting average against while striking out 12. The right-hander will be a key piece to the Cincinnati bullpen as they look to clinch a wild card spot.

San Diego Padres: Blake Snell

After having not-so-great a season through the first four months, Snell turned it around in August. The southpaw ended the month with an incredible start on Tuesday, going seven shutout innings while striking out 10. The start before, he went 7 2/3 innings while also striking out 10 and allowing one run. In the month, the offseason trade acquisition struck out 54 while walking just 12 in 36 2/3 innings. The Padres need him to continue the dominance to fight off the Reds for the second wild card.

Philadelphia Phillies: Ian Kennedy

Of course, the question with the Phillies and their playoff chances is always whether their bullpen can hold up. Kennedy was one of Philadelphia’s big trade deadline acquisitions, and he started out horribly. Over the first four games, he allowed three homers while needing to throw over 20 pitches in three of them in one inning. In one of them, he did convert the save after allowing a homer. Since then, the right-hander has converted four of five save opportunities while allowing no runs in all but one outing, which was the one blown save. He has struck out nine in 6 2/3 innings while walking four over that time.

St. Louis Cardinals: Jon Lester

With uncertainties surrounding Jack Flaherty and his shoulder, the Cardinals need someone else to pick up the pieces if their ace can’t return to form. Lester was a trade deadline acquisition from the Washington Nationals, and his tenure with St. Louis started off very shaky. Over his first two starts in August, he surrendered 11 runs in 10 1/3 innings. The left-hander is really going to need to step it up to give the Cardinals a chance at sneaking in the playoffs. His last two starts have been solid, as he has surrendered just one run in each while going 5 innings and 6 1/3 innings, respectively.

New York Mets: Javier Baez

The former Cub has been a big letdown since the Mets traded for him at the trade deadline. Since joining the Mets, Baez is hitting just .213/.262/.410 with 21 strikeouts to three walks and three homers in 61 at-bats. Of late, he is starting to turn it on, 5 for his last 19 (.263) with two homers in the last five games. On Tuesday, Baez also raced home to score the winning run in the bottom of the ninth all the way from first. This came less than 48 hours after Baez turned on the fans, giving them a thumbs down for booing him. The Mets need his bat to get on a roll to bring their offense from the brink of death. Honestly the real x-Factor for the Mets, though, is for the organization to get the hell out of their own way.

American League

Tampa Bay Rays: Wander Franco 

The Rays’ top prospect coming into the season extended his on-base streak to 32 games on Wednesday night, as he hit an opposite-field home run off Chris Sale. The 20-year old has been on a tear of late after not doing so hot within the first couple of weeks since being called up. Through the first 14 games, the shortstop was hitting .211/.274/.351 with 13 strikeouts in 57 at-bats against five walks. In the month of August, Franco hit .313/.382/.485 with three homers and just eight strikeouts to nine walks in 110 plate appearances. If the Rays are to make noise in the postseason, they are going to need their young phenom to stay hot.

Houston Astros: Jose Urquidy

Urquidy was activated off the injured list on Tuesday and will start in place of Zack Greinke (COVID IL) over the weekend. The righty has been out since late June with right shoulder discomfort, but pitched well prior to the injury, posting a 3.38 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, and 66-to-13 strikeout-to-walk rate across 77.1 innings. The Astros may go to a six-man rotation once Greinke is cleared to return, and Urquidy could be a huge piece that carries them deep into the postseason.

Chicago White Sox: Dallas Keuchel

The White Sox have the AL Central all but locked up. The question is, how deep can they go in the postseason. Their rotation will be key to answering that question, as the offense really has no question marks. Lance Lynn is a top Cy Young candidate, while Dylan Cease, Carlos Rodon, and Lucas Giolito have all had solid seasons. But it has been a very disappointing season for Keuchel who had a tremendous 2020 season. In 26 starts, the southpaw has a 5.00 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, and 83 strikeouts in 136 2/3 innings. In his last two starts, he has given up 11 earned runs over six innings.

New York Yankees: Luis Gil

It is going to be tough for the Yankees to catch the Rays, but they still have a hold on the first American League Wild Card spot. With the backend of the rotation needing help, the Yankees’ fourth-ranked prospect will be a big arm to give them innings down the stretch. So far in three big league starts, Gil has yet to allow a run in 15 2/3 innings while striking out 18 and walking seven. The Yankees have kept their options open with Gil last week, having him work in relief for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Railriders. He was dominant as he struck out seven over 4 2/3 innings.

Boston Red Sox: Nathan Eovaldi

If the Red Sox are going to hold onto a wild card spot, their pitching has to hold on for its dear life. That starts with Eovaldi, who really held down the fort until Sale came back. He was the Red Sox defacto ace for most of the season, holding a 3.71 ERA, 2.80 FIP, and 154-to-26 strikeout-to-walk rate over 150 1/3 innings. The right-hander struck out at least six over his last four starts while surrendering no more than two runs.

Oakland Athletics: Daulton Jefferies

The A’s fifth-ranked prospect has made two appearances in the majors this season, including one start. His start came back on August 1, and he went five innings while giving up three runs on three walks, three hits, and three strikeouts. His second outing came on Wednesday after he was added to the roster, and he surrendered one run in one inning of relief while striking out two. Jefferies is a key addition to the Oakland pitching staff as they try to put the pieces together for a playoff spot.

Seattle Mariners: Logan Gilbert

After struggling of late, Gilbert shut down the Astros lineup on Wednesday, holding them off the scoreboard over five innings. He didn’t allow a walk while striking out four and recording 18 swinging strikes. Prior to that start, the 24-year-old allowed 19 runs over his last three starts, including nine runs in a start against the Astros on Aug. 21. The bounceback start is certainly a good sign and gives him a confidence boost for the final stretch.

Toronto Blue Jays: Nate Pearson

The Blue Jays called up Pearson, their top prospect, on Wednesday as rosters expanded. Just the night before, the right-hander struck out the side in an outing against the Railriders. After the Brad Hand experiment completely backfired for Toronto, Pearson looks primed to come up and pitch in high-leverage situations down the stretch.

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