Marty Niland: Nats’ postseason hero could be anyone

The Nationals are banged up as they enter the 2016 playoffs, with many of their top stars out or ailing for the National League Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. But if they are going to give Washington a postseason series win for the first time since 1924, the Nats will still need a postseason hero to make it happen.

Wilson Ramos is out for the whole postseason. Stephen Strasburg won’t be pitching in at least the NLDS. Daniel Murphy is hobbled. Bryce Harper is still coming back from a jammed thumb, and Jayson Werth has a tight back.

The Nats might need someone unexpected to make the difference between an early exit and postseason glory. Here a few unlikely postseason heroes, and what they overcame to become legends.

Walter Johnson, 1924: He might be greatest pitcher of all-time, and actually had one of his best seasons in ‘24, going 23-7, so how was The Big Train an unlikely hero? Johnson actually lost his two World Series starts against the New York Giants, including Game 5 to leave the Nats on the brink of elimination. But even after pitching 20 innings, the 36-year-old wasn’t done. With the score tied at three in the ninth inning of Game 7, Johnson came out of the bullpen to throw four scoreless innings and was the winner on Earl McNeely’s bad hop single in the 12th.

Bill Mazeroski, 1960: Maz was known for his defense, but in the 1960 Series against the New York Yankees, a .273 hitter with just 11 home runs lifted the Pittsburgh Pirates with a big bat. Maz not only hit the only Game 7 walk-off homer in World Series history, but also hit the decisive home run in the Pirates’ 6-4 victory in Game 1.

Bucky Dent, 1978: For the record, the Yankee shortstop’s full name in this playing days was Russell Earl Dent, although Boston Red Sox fans pronounce his middle name a bit differently. He hit just .243 with five homers in ‘78, but became a Yankee legend in October. In a one-game playoff against Boston for the American League East championship, his three-run homer in the seventh put the Yankees ahead to stay. Dent went on to become the World Series MVP, hitting .417 with seven RBI in a six-game win over the Dodgers.

Rick Dempsey, 1983:
The Baltimore Orioles catcher hit .231 with four homers and rounded out a light-hitting bottom third of the Baltimore order with Todd Cruz and Rich Dauer, known affectionately as the “Three Stooges.” But in the World Series against Philadelphia, Dempsey hit .385 with five extra-base hits, including a homer in the Game 5 clincher.

Kirk Gibson, 1988: The man who would become NL MVP wasn’t even in uniform when the Dodgers started Game 1 of the Series against heavily favored Oakland. He had injured both legs in the NLCS upset of the New York Mets and was in the training room. But with two out in the bottom of the ninth, his team down 4-3 and a man on base, Gibson hobbled to the plate and hit a 3-2 pitch from future Hall-of-Famer Dennis Eckersley over the right field fence. The A’s never recovered, and the Dodgers won the series in five.

Daniel Murphy, 2015: The New York Mets second baseman had a nice year, hitting .281 with 14 homers. But it was no indication of what he would do in the postseason. In the NLDS against the Dodgers, he hit .333 with three homers, and followed that up with an NLCS for the ages. Against the Cubs, Murphy hit .529 with four more homers in a four-game sweep for the pennant. His homers in six straight postseason games are a major league record.

You never know who will be the hero in baseball’s postseason. Many superstars have continued great seasons right through October. Others have overcome injuries or fatigue to deliver in the clutch. Sometimes it’s an unknown or a light hitter who catches fire at the right time. For the Nats, it could be anyone.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. Follow him on Twitter: @martyball98. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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