Only 19 days remain in the 2021 MLB regular season, and as of Wednesday morning, 17 teams are within four games of a postseason spot. There is a lot on the line these next 19 days, including awards races and pursuits of history.
At this time of year every player feels the pressure to perform, though some feel more pressure than others. The star shortstop and ace pitcher are counted on to do more than the platoon outfielder and swingman in the bullpen, for example. With that in mind, here are 10 players feeling heightened pressure as the regular season winds down, listed alphabetically.
I know Cody Bellinger is having a bad year, and yet every time I look at his numbers, I'm shocked at just how bad he's been. He owns a .159/.237/.295 batting line, which is "worst hitter in baseball" kinda stuff, though he remains an excellent defensive center fielder. The Dodgers are trying to chase down the Giants for the NL West title and Bellinger is trying to a) help them do that, b) secure a spot on the postseason roster, and c) shut down any speculation he could be non-tendered in the offseason. I think non-tendering a player with MVP upside would be insane no matter how bad he's been this year, but there has been speculation it could happen. A strong finish would solve a lot of problems for Bellinger himself and also the Dodgers.
Very quietly, Mark Canha put up an .869 OPS from Opening 2019 through May 2021, a top 25 mark in baseball and on par with bigger names like José Abreu (.874), Max Muncy (.871), and José Ramírez (.866). Then he missed about a month with a hip issue at midseason and he didn't hit at all when he first returned (.599 OPS in his first 37 games back). Canha has started to come around the last two weeks or so (five homers in his last 13 games) and the Athletics need it. They're fighting for their postseason lives right now. Also, Canha is a free agent-to-be, so he's playing for a contract. That's a double whammy of September pressure.
Simply put, the Yankees are attempted to avoid a collapse, having gone 5-12 since their 13-game winning streak. The offense is struggling, the bullpen is blowing leads, and the starters aren't pitching deep into games. Seven times in the last 13 games their starter failed to complete even five innings. Gerrit Cole returned from a minor hamstring issue Tuesday night and will be asked to shoulder much of the load the rest of the season. At this point, the Yankees need Cole to dominate and eat up innings in his final four regular season starts to have a chance at a postseason berth. Anything less than that, and they'll likely go home in three weeks.
This has been a contract year to forget for Michael Conforto. The 28-year-old was one of the most productive hitters in baseball from 2017-20, but he started this year terribly, taking a .196/.322/.321 batting line into August. The Mets as a team are averaging only 3.97 runs per game, fourth fewest in baseball. Offense has been a problem all year. Conforto has been better of late (.274/.381/.459 since Aug. 1) and two and a half good weeks to close out the season could be enough to keep the Mets relevant in the postseason race into the final weekend, and also tack a few million onto what feels like Conforto's inevitable one-year "prove yourself" contract this winter.
Coming into the season the Padres were a trendy World Series pick and why not? They had the third best record in baseball during the shortened 60-game season and they were MLB's most active team over the winter. Things have not gone according to plan though, and San Diego is 8-21 since Aug. 10. They're trying like heck to hang around the wild-card race. Yu Darvish started the season very well (2.44 ERA in his first 16 starts), though he's struggled lately (5.74 ERA in his last 11 starts), while also spending some time on the injured list. The Padres didn't trade for Darvish to bring him along for the ride. They traded for him to be a difference-maker, and he was that pitcher earlier in the year. The Padres need Darvish to get back to that to avoid what would be an embarrassing collapse should they miss the postseason, especially with Blake Snell now injured.
The Red Sox rotation has been a bit of a rollercoaster this season. They were very good (much better than expected) early in the year, then they crashed back to Earth a bit, and now they're dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak. Chris Sale is currently out and Nick Pivetta just returned this past weekend. Through it all, Nathan Eovaldi has been Boston's rock, providing quality innings every fifth day. Similar to Cole and the Yankees, the Red Sox need Eovaldi to pitch well and eat up innings to secure a postseason berth. He's the guy they don't want to have to worry about every five days the rest of the season.
Nothing comes easy for the Phillies. They have questions beyond Zack Wheeler in the rotation, the bullpen always seems to be shaky, and the offense is inconsistent at best. Bryce Harper is having a superstar season and maybe not getting enough credit for it given Philadelphia's place in the standings. He's smashed 32 homers and leads baseball in OPS (1.033) and OPS+ (179). The Phillies are kinda sorta maybe but not really in the postseason race at this point, and there's basically zero chance they make it if Harper slumps even a tiny little bit these final two and a half weeks.
On paper, the Mariners have no business being in the postseason race. Their minus-60 run differential is worse than the Rockies (minus-48) and Tigers (minus-56), and they're one of the lowest scoring teams in baseball. Seattle has hung around the race because they've been insanely clutch, and stalwart Kyle Seager owns a1.056 OPS with runners in scoring position. He is the club's longest tenured player and most dangerous left-handed bat. He's also playing for a contract. Seager's contract includes a club option for 2022 that is now approaching $20 million through escalators, and if the Mariners decline that, he'll be a free agent. First things first: Seager wants to help Seattle reach the postseason for the first time since Ichiro's rookie year. He'll worry about his contract after that.
The Blue Jays have stormed up the standings in recent weeks thanks to a high-powered offense and a rotation that is four deep in above-average starters (José Berríos, Alek Manoah, Robbie Ray, Hyun-Jin Ryu). The bullpen has been shaky at times (OK, shaky all year), though closer Jordan Romano has been excellent. The offense is going to score runs and the rotation is going to provide quality starts pretty much every night. It's on Romano (and his bullpen mates) to make every lead stand up. Toronto can't afford to led any leads slip away at this point in the postseason race.
At any given moment the Giants have only three pitchers in the rotation. Johnny Cueto and Alex Wood (and Tyler Beede) are hurt, which puts a lot of responsibility on young Logan Webb. with above-average strikeout, walk, and ground ball rates across the board. Veteran righties Anthony DeSclafani and Kevin Gausman are under pressure as well because the Giants need them to contribute quantity and quality (a lot of good innings, not just innings), but Webb is being asked to do that in his first full 162-game season. So far, he's excelled, and San Francisco needs it to continue.