A year ago, Michael Wacha won his first four postseason starts for the Cardinals (matching his regular-season victory total), was named MVP of the National League Championship Series and got the ball in the deciding game of the World Series. In the American League Division Series, the Athletics' Sonny Gray twice went toe-to-toe with Justin Verlander and permitted just three runs in 13 innings.
Wacha and Gray made for good baseball -- and good copy. Young starting pitchers who couldn't make the Opening Day roster yet came up huge in October provide an interesting and easy story to write on deadline.
That plotline seems to recur on an annual basis. With one big league start on his résumé, the Rays' Matt Moore shut out the Rangers for seven innings in the AL Division Series opener in 2011. Madison Bumgarner went from pitching in the mid-80s during spring training in 2010 to winning an NL Division Series clincher and twirling eight scoreless innings in the penultimate game of the World Series for the Giants seven months later.
David Price had all of 14 innings of major league experience when the Rays pressed him into bullpen duty in the 2008 playoffs, yet he responded by winning an 11-inning game and saving the clincher in the AL Division Series. The Red Sox's Jon Lester beat non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2006 and defeated the Rockies in the final game of the World Series in 2007. The Cardinals' Anthony Reyes got pounded for most of 2006 -- and much of his big league career -- but came up huge in the World Series opener that October, beating the Tigers with eight innings of two-run ball.
With the exception of Reyes, all of those other breakout postseason pitchers became or are on their way to becoming stars. The scenario looks likely to repeat itself again this fall, with as many as six potential candidates. We'll rank them in order, based on their team's likelihood to play in October and their chances of success:
Kevin Gausman, Orioles. The first pitcher drafted in 2012, he went fourth overall and signed for $4.32 million. Gausman also became the first starting pitcher from his draft class to reach the big leagues -- which was expected, though he got their faster than anticipated, making it to Baltimore 10 months after signing. He got hammered as a starter in 2013 and looked much better out of the bullpen, but has succeeded in the rotation with improved fastball command this season.
A regular member of Baltimore's rotation since June, Gausman has gone 7-4, 3.70 in 13 starts, though he isn't missing as many bats (48 strikeouts in 73 innings) as his stuff suggests he should. His repertoire is similar to Wacha's, as Gausman relies more on his fastball and changeup than his so-so slider. Gausman throws harder than Wacha, averaging 95 mph with his fastball, and uses a splitter/changeup. He has better pure stuff than any Baltimore starter.
Jimmy Nelson, Brewers. When first-rounder Dylan Covey opted not to sign after a post-draft physical revealed that he had Type I diabetes, second-rounder Nelson became the top pick Milwaukee landed in 2010. He emerged as the system's top prospect a year ago and was as dominant as any minor league pitcher in the first half of 2014, going 10-2, 1.46 with 114 strikeouts and a .179 opponent average in 111 innings at Triple-A Nashville. Called up in July to replace a struggling Marco Estrada in the Brewers rotation, he has ripped off five straight quality starts since the All-Star break.
Nelson primarily works with two pitches, a 92-95 mph fastball and a mid-80s slider. He doesn't trust his changeup much yet, and while lefties have tagged him for all three big league homers he has surrendered, he otherwise has limited the damage they've done. As with Gausman, Nelson has the best stuff in his rotation and, unlike many rookies, already does a commendable job of throwing strikes.
Taijuan Walker, Mariners. At Yucaipa (Calif.) High, he was better known as a basketball player who earned the nickname "Sky Walker" for his dunking prowess and averaged 21 points and 15 rebounds per game as a senior. Seattle's top pick in the 2010 draft (43rd overall in the supplemental first round), Walker signed for $800,000 and breezed through the minors quicker than expected. He reached Double-A as a 19-year-old in 2012, made his big league debut shortly after turning 21 in August 2013 and would have opened this season in the Mariners rotation if he hadn't come down with a shoulder impingement in spring training.
Though Walker has made just three starts for Seattle this year and currently is at Triple-A Tacoma, he could be primed for a big finish. He has 22 strikeouts in 13 innings over his last two starts for the Rainiers, though with the Mariners' starters all pitching well, there's no obvious opening for Walker. He has an electric 92-98 mph fastball that he can run or tail to either side of the plate, and he has established his cutter/slider as his top secondary pitch over his inconsistent curveball and changeup.
Andrew Heaney, Marlins. Miami drafted Heaney ninth overall after he led NCAA Division I with 140 strikeouts in 118 innings as an Oklahoma State junior in 2012, and despite some acrimonious negotiations, they landed him for $2.6 million on the day of the signing deadline. Considered the most polished pitcher in his draft class, he has lived up to that billing by breezing through the minors and making his big league debut this June. He recorded a quality start against the Mets in his first outing, then got hit hard in his next three before returning to Triple-A.
Nathon Eovaldi, Brad Hand and Brad Penny are getting knocked around in the back of the Marlins rotation, so Heaney could be back soon, especially after yielding just one earned run over his last two starts in New Orleans. The lone lefthander on this list, he has three pitches that all grade as plus when at their best. He has a 91-96 mph fastball that plays up because of its life and command, a swing-and-miss slider and a rapidly improving changeup.
Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays. He had arguably the most electric arm among college pitchers in the 2012, yet he lasted 22 picks because he's 5-foot-9. Duke's first-ever first-round pick and the recipient of a $1.8 million bonus, Stroman had some hopes of reaching Toronto as a reliever that season, though that ended when he drew a 50-game suspension for testing positive for amphetamine use in August, after he already had reached Double-A. The Blue Jays summoned him to their bullpen this May and installed him in their rotation at the end of the month.
Stroman has given Toronto 10 quality starts in 14 tries, going 6-4, 3.12 with a 69-20 K-BB ratio in 80 2/3 innings in the rotation. His lively 92-96 mph fastball can be unhittable -- and that's not even his best pitch. He has a wipeout upper-80s slider that he also can morph into a low-90s cutter, and he also can keep batters off balance by mixing in a hard curveball and a changeup.
Shane Greene, Yankees. Easily the most obscure pitcher on this list, Greene had Tommy John surgery as a freshman at NCAA Division II West Florida in 2008. New York spotted him after he transferred to Daytona Beach (Fla.) CC in 2009, drafted him in the 15th round that June and signed him for $100,000. He went 12-31, 4.79 in his first four years as a pro before he figured out how to command his pitches last season.
Once he was able to locate his 90-94 mph sinker and his upper-80s cutter/slider where he wanted, Greene zoomed from high Class A in June 2013 to making his big league debut this April. When injuries ravaged their rotation, the Yankees called him back up in July and have received four quality starts in seven tries. His crossfire delivery gives his pitches tough angle, making life especially difficult for righthanders.
With six weeks to go, the Marlins, Blue Jays and Yankees are clinging to faint playoff hopes, the Mariners have a solid shot and the Orioles and Brewers look like locks. Even more certain, if recent history is any indication, is that one or more of these clubs will get October pitching heroics from a youngster who couldn't crack its Opening Day roster.