After clinching their first American League pennant in 19 years, the Cleveland Indians must wait to find out their World Series opponent.

Cleveland has gone 7-1 in postseason play with a 1.77 staff ERA despite missing starters Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar. The offense has struggled, mustering a meek .206 batting average and .256 on-base percentage, but hitting 11 homers will suffice for a squad that has allowed 15 runs.

Everything went their way against the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays. Will they keep rolling against the Chicago Cubs or Los Angeles Dodgers? As the Indians celebrated their AL crown, the Cubs took a 3-2 lead on Thursday night. Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw will look to fend off elimination in Saturday’s Game 6.

Once the matchup is set, observers will fixate on the stars who must step up during the best-of-seven showdown. Cleveland needs more huge outings from Corey Kluber, Francisco Lindor, Andrew Miller and Cody Allen. Both National League teams standing will counter with marquee sluggers, aces and stellar closers.

The superstars, of course, don’t always decide the World Series. Let’s take a look at some other pivotal players key to securing a championship.


Josh Tomlin, SP, Cleveland Indians

Cleveland’s bullpen—and manager Terry Francona’s aggressive usage of the stellar unit—is the toast of baseball. Miller and Allen have combined to strike out 33 batters over 19.1 shutout innings. Those guys must keep dealing, but a ragtag rotation also must hold the fort down.

With no Carrasco, no Salazar and one out from Trevor Bauer in the American League Championship Series, the Indians still survived. While Kluber is undoubtedly essential to the starting staff, de facto No. 2 starter Josh Tomlin has embodied the Indians’ unlikely October run.

After posting a 4.40 ERA during the season, the 32-year-old limited potent Boston and Toronto offenses to a combined three runs over two starts. Perhaps just as surprising, the man with a career 5.98 strikeouts per nine innings has collected 10 of them over 10.2 frames.

His postseason success isn’t entirely out of nowhere. Tomlin posted a 1.75 ERA through his final four regular-season starts without issuing a single walk. As ESPN’s Buster Olney noted, the veteran righty will attack the strike zone:

Such control led to only 20 walks during the season, but it also caused him to get shelled too often. He relinquished 36 home runs, MLB‘s third-highest tally behind James Shields and Jered Weaver.

Right-handed hitters crushed him to a .299/.323/.522 slash line. The lefty-heavy Dodgers usually torment righties, but Tomlin’s reverse splits could save him from despair. Against the Cubs, NL MVP front-runner Kris Bryant is a prime candidate to go yard.

With rookie Ryan Merritt potentially representing their Game 3 or 4 starter, the Indians need another solid turn or two from Tomlin.


Ben Zobrist, OF, Chicago Cubs

If the Cubs overcome the Dodgers, Ben Zobrist will appear in his second straight World Series. The Cubs will hope he makes as much of an impact for them as he did for the Kansas City Royals.

Playing second base for the AL champions last year, he hit four doubles during five Fall Classic games against the New York Mets. The midseason trade acquisition ended the postseason with an .880 OPS and a championship ring.

He’s not doing so well this October, batting 6-for-33 with one double. The team’s offensive struggles compelled him to bunt out of desperation in Game 4.

Bunting is rarely advisable, especially for a cleanup hitter who can work his way on base otherwise, but it worked. His bunt hit helped sparked a four-run inning in the team’s best offseason showing of the playoffs.

“It felt like that spot in the game was the right time,” Zobrist said, per’s Jesse Rogers. “After we hadn’t gotten any hits up to that point, I was like ‘Well, it’s time. Someone needs to do it.'”

Thursday offered a promising sign. He went hitless in Game 5’s win, but the 34-year-old also drew three walks. Entering Thursday, he had worked only one free pass. 

In order to make and win the World Series, the Cubs will need him to contribute in more conventional ways. He’s positioned high in the order near Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, so it’s especially vital to get his bat going.


Pedro Baez, RP, Los Angeles Dodgers

The bullpen wasn’t a problem for the Dodgers this season. The 3.35 ERA led the majors, but that success has not carried over into the playoffs.

Their relievers—including Kershaw’s National League Division Series save—have relinquished 37 runs over 17 innings. Veteran Joe Blanton, who posted a 2.48 ERA during the season, has already capitulated seven runs. Rookie Grant Dayton, another high-leverage option, is also struggling under the brighter spotlight:

Although his snail-like pace puts everyone to sleep, Pedro Baez was an exception in his recent outings. The 28-year-old righty didn’t allow a run over his first 5.1 innings. Manager Dave Roberts has twice trusted him to work two full frames, which he hadn’t previously done since July 8.

On Wednesday, however, he relinquished a home run to Rizzo. Used the next day despite throwing 27 pitches, he put Game 5 out of reach by surrendering five runs, three of which crossed home plate when Ross Stripling replaced him and gave up a bases-clearing double.

In 10 games, Los Angeles’ starters have gone five or more innings four times. Kershaw accounts for three of those, with Rich Hill lasting six in the other. Someone needs to bridge the gap to Kenley Jansen, and Baez remains one of the most prominent options despite two consecutive poor games.

Having allowed 11 homers in 74 innings this season before Rizzo’s Game 4 blast, Baez also must beware the long ball. Those not yawning through his slow outings will instead bite their nails, but he will have to pitch key late innings if the Dodgers advance.

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