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7 under-the-radar players who could be the difference in the 2019 World Series

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Zack Greinke isn’t the Astros best starter, but he could be the most important in the World Series. Getty Images

There are plenty of stars in the 2019 World Series, with Cy Young-laden pitching staffs, a former AL MVP plus two MVP-candidate third basemen this season. But they aren’t alone!

Here are seven impact Washington Nationals and Houston Astros who will enhance your Fall Classic viewing.

It’s Yordan Alvarez swinging a baseball bat! Getty Images

Yordan Alvarez

Coming into the postseason, it would have been difficult to envision a scenario where Yordan Alvarez would be considered a liability — he did nothing but mash baseballs over his first 87 games as a big leaguer. If baseball really was just a silly spreadsheet game where the best algorithm always won, then the Astros would have no qualms with sticking with a guy who hit .313/.412/.655 with 27 homers over just over half-a-season’s worth of work.

However, baseball is a game with a bunch of flawed humans and it almost never goes exactly according to plan. Instead of seeing the 22-year-old slugger continue to hit baseballs hard and often, we’ve seen him languish through a bleak postseason at the plate. Alvarez is only hitting .171/.227/.244 with an astronomical strikeout rate of 43.2 percent over 44 playoff plate appearances. He’s scuffling right now and it’s a testament to just how deep Houston is that they’ve reached this far.

A.J. Hinch isn’t giving up on him for the World Series, though. Alvarez will be starting for the first two games but there’s a question of whether or not he’ll get the start once the series shifts into the NL ballpark. A big breakout night at the plate before the series moves to Washington would make that decision an easy one for Hinch and it would also be a sign that things are going great for the Astros. They’ve already had consistent production at the plate throughout this postseason and if Yordan Alvarez can come alive, that would be huge for Houston’s chances of winning a second World Series in three years.

Demetrius Bell

Michael Brantley

It’s just nice to have Michael Brantley fully healthy for the postseason, after several star-crossed years in Cleveland.

The talented outfielder finished third in AL MVP voting in 2014, then followed that up with another productive season in 2015. But when the Indians made their World Series run in 2016, Brantley was limited to just 11 games all season because of a shoulder injury — one that required surgery the offseason prior — and he missed the playoffs.

In 2017 he made the all-star team again in a wonderful comeback year, but then he missed 50 games with an ankle injury. He was rushed back to play in the postseason after playing just the final two games of the regular season, then was just 1-for-11 in Cleveland’s ALDS loss. He had ankle surgery after the season.

This year Brantley signed with the Astros, adding depth to an already formidable lineup. He was an all-star for a third straight year after a typically solid Brantley season, hitting .311/.372/.503 with 40 doubles and 22 home runs while providing above average defense in left field.

He made a crucial defensive play in Game 6 of the ALCS, following up a sprawling catch in left field with a strong, accurate throw to first base for a rally-killing double play.

Brantley has started all 11 postseason games for Houston this year. He has been relatively quiet offensively, though he homered in the ALDS and hit .304 (7 for 23) in the ALCS. Brantley has also been very selective at the plate, seeing more pitches than anyone else this postseason, averaging 4.30 per plate appearance.

— Eric Stephen

Sean Doolittle

Washington’s bullpen was mostly bad during the regular season, ranking 29th in relief ERA (5.68), ahead of only the execrable 108-loss Orioles. Sean Doolittle was a bright spot though, and shortly after the all-star break stood out with his 2.72 ERA. He allowed only three home runs in his first 44 appearances, but then went through a rough patch, surrendering seven home runs in his next 10 games, more than he allowed in any of his seven previous major league seasons.

That landed Doolittle on the injured list with right knee tendinitis, and after a two-week rest he was refreshed. He allowed all of two runs in eight innings in September, and has allowed two runs in his 7 playoff innings, giving him a 2.35 ERA since his return with 13 strikeouts and two walks. That’s much more in line with his career numbers entering 2019: a 2.83 ERA and 2.40 FIP, the latter ranking ninth among major league relievers.

Daniel Hudson has emerged as the Nationals closer this postseason, but Doolittle saved Game 1 of the NLCS when Hudson was on paternity leave and also got the final three outs to close out the NLDS against the Dodgers. Those two have been the most reliable relievers in the Nationals bullpen, with Doolittle looking a lot like his former self these last two months.

As a bonus, the better the Nationals do, the more likely we are to see Doolittle bust out his lightsaber.

— Eric Stephen

Zack Greinke

Zack Greinke has made the postseason in six seasons on four different teams, but this will be his first World Series appearance. And if the Astros are going to succeed, they’re going to need Greinke to pitch more like he does in the regular season than he has in the playoffs.

In 14 postseason starts, Greinke is 3-6 with a 4.44 ERA. Compare that to his career .625 winning percentage and 3.35 ERA and it seems a bit peculiar. It gets a lot more bleak if you remove his postseason appearances with the Dodgers, where he was quite good. In his eight non-Dodgers playoff starts he’s got one win, an ERA of 6.64, and he averages about 11 H/2.5 HR/3.43 BB/ 7.78 SO per nine innings pitched. All of which is starkly worse than his career numbers.

In this postseason alone, he’s allowed 15 hits, five home runs and five walks in 14 innings. He’s also struck out 16, which shows an almost uncanny ability he has to average almost exactly as many hits as he does strike outs.

But, and I feel like this needs to be emphasized, he is actually a very good pitcher in the regular season. I’m not the type of person who believes in “clutch” or “choking” — I feel like those terms imply that a player can control exactly how well they play in the moment and I think that outside of conditioning and practice, that’s just not the case. Especially for pitchers. You can be in excellent shape and be a perennial Cy Young candidate and sometimes, you’re just not going to have control of your pitches.

That said, he was very good in his appearances with the Dodgers in the postseason, so it’s not necessarily a hopeless case. And if he can limit the contact while keeping up the strikeout numbers, he will be a very important factor to Houston’s success in this series.

— Sami Higgins

League Championship Series - New York Yankees v Houston Astros - Game Six Getty Images

Yuli Gurriel

So far this season the Astros first baseman is hitting just .209/.239/.302, and in the ALCS he was just 3-for-24 (.125). But look a little closer, and you’ll see Gurriel has been tattooing the ball. Nine of his 20 balls in play against the Yankees were hit 95 mph or harder.

Gurriel hit into outs on balls that, according to Statcast based on how hard and where they were hit, had expected batting averages of .820, .720, .620, .620, .550, .430, .420, and .410. He was robbed by Gio Urshela in Game 2, by Aaron Hicks in Game 3 and Game 4, then by Aaron Judge in Game 5, to name a few.

In the Game 6 clincher, Gurriel finally broke through with a three-run home run in the first inning, followed by a 101-mph single in the eighth. Factor that in with the fact that Gurriel has yet to strike out this postseason in 46 plate appearances, and he sure seems like somebody ready to bust out in a big way.

— Eric Stephen

Howie Kendrick

Howie Kendrick is coming off of an absolute monster series in which he was named National League Division Series MVP at the age of 35. Including him on this list might be a bit obvious, but the Nationals are going to need him to carry that performance into the World series in order to stand a chance against the Monstars Astros.

Washington is the underdog in this matchup, but if players like Kendrick can continue to get on base with regularity, they have proven that they can capitalize on those opportunities, even against top-tier pitching.

It was Kendrick’s grand slam against the Dodgers that sent the Nationals to the championship series, seemingly against all odds, and his MVP performance that helped them sweep the Cardinals. So it seems almost expected that he will make a big contribution to this series to cap off one of the best seasons of his lengthy career.

— Sami Higgins

Anibal Sanchez

With all the talk surrounding the three-headed monster of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, you have to remember that another pitcher who has come up huge for the Nationals has been Anibal Sanchez. It’s a testament to how strong those three have been throughout the playoffs that a guy who had everybody on “No-Hitter Alert” during the NLCS isn’t a lock to get a start in the World Series.

However, if the Nationals do turn to Sanchez then they can at least be confident that he’ll keep up the same level of pitching that the Nats and their fans have become used to during this postseason. Also, he’s got World Series experience under his belt — he went seven innings in Game 3 of the 2012 Fall Classic and only gave up two runs while striking out eight batters. The Detroit Tigers happened to lose that game to the San Francisco Giants, but it’s hard for a pitcher to lead his team to victory when said team scores a grand total of zero runs.

This is always the time of year where unsung heroes become the legends that you talk about in the future — even if it’s in the vein of “Hey, do you remember this guy?” If Anibal Sanchez is called upon again, maybe he’ll deliver a start that puts him in that particular territory.

Demetrius Bell