The Tigers left fielder in Game Two of the American League Championship Series led off the seventh inning and struck one of the game's critical hits. He drove a pitch from the Yankees' Hiroki Kuroda to deep center field for a double. He then scored on a Delmon Young groundout three batters later, breaking a scoreless tie. Detroit went on to win the game 3-0.
Little more than three hours later, in Game One of the National League Championship Series, the Giants left fielder cut San Francisco's deficit in half with a fourth-inning triple to right-center field off Cardinals starter Lance Lynn. His extra-base hit plated two runs, and he came around to score when the next batter, Brandon Crawford, doubled. The Giants bullpen held St. Louis scoreless for the final five innings, but the damage had been done and San Fran lost the game 6-4.
While the events outlined above appear commonplace, the identity of the rally-starters may surprise. Our two heroes from Oct. 14 turned out to be Quintin Berry (Tigers) and Gregor Blanco (Giants), a pair of players signed as minor league free agents last offseason.
Even the Yankees haven't been immune from turning to a minor league free agent import for help. Jayson Nix started at least 10 games at third base, shortstop and second base during the regular season, only to be pushed into service as everyday shortstop during the ALCS after Derek Jeter fractured his ankle in Game One.
But Berry, Blanco and Nix weren't the only pleasant surprises plucked from the scrap heap last winter. See for yourself with the top 10 ranking that follows. All players signed minor league contracts following the 2011 season. [Edit: In case you're wondering, White Sox lefty Jose Quintana does not appear here because he signed a major league deal with Chicago.]
1. Gregor Blanco, of, Giants. He started 89 games in the outfield and appeared in 125 total while batting .244/.333/.344 with 51 walks in 453 plate appearances. Once you normalize for AT&T Park, a pitcher's haven, that works out to league-average production (95 OPS+) for the 28-year-old, who also chipped in 26 steals in 32 attempts.
1a. Miguel Gonzalez, rhp, Orioles. Gonzalez missed all of 2008 and ’09 with injury and didn't show enough upon his return to avoid being released by the Red Sox last December. He found his mojo in the Mexican Pacific League last winter (2.74 ERA, 44 strikeouts, 34 hits in 42 innings) to catch the attention of the Orioles, who signed him after pitchers and catchers had already reported to spring training this season. Gonzalez continued to befuddle opponents with Triple-A Norfolk by striking out 53, walking 10 and allowing just 22 hits in 43 innings to get the call to Baltimore on May 29. He joined the O's rotation for good in July, and at no point was his value more evident than in Game Three of the AL Division Series when he completed seven one-run innings at Yankee Stadium. [Gonzalez slipped through the cracks on a previous version of this post, so thanks to Jim in comments for correcting my oversight. ME]
2. Brandon Moss, 1b/rf, Athletics. Moss spent the first two months of the season doing what he's always done: mash Triple-A pitching, this time with 15 homers and .952 OPS in 51 games for Sacramento. Called to Oakland in June, he served as the perfect lefty-hitting complement to rookie first baseman Chris Carter by batting .290/.363/.643 in 234 plate appearances against righties. Moss hit 21 homers in Oakland, giving him 36 between the minors and majors this season.
3. Justin Ruggiano, of Marlins. Though he proved to be the best of the Astros' offseason signings—which also included Travis Buck and Scott Moore—they didn't reap the benefits of Ruggiano's age-30 breakthrough. That's because Houston traded him to the Marlins for low Class A catcher Jobduan Morales in late May . . . and then watched as Ruggiano hit .313/.374/.535 with 13 homers in 91 games for Miami while playing center field regularly.
4. Quintin Berry, of, Tigers. A minor league Rule 5 castoff, Berry replaced an injured Austin Jackson in center field for a 16-game stretch beginning May 23 and won converts by batting .288/.356/.409 with seven steals in seven tries. Once Jackson returned, Berry made the majority of his starts in left field and turned in a solid year, which included a .330 on-base percentage. On a slothful, station-to-station team will no other true running threats, he contributed 21 steals without being caught.
5. Luis Cruz, 3b/ss, Dodgers. With so much money tied up in expensive veterans, the Dodgers turned to Cruz, a minor league vet, at third base when Juan Uribe cratered and Hanley Ramirez shifted to shortstop. The 28-year-old Cruz hit .297 and belted 26 extra-base hits in 78 games for Los Angeles, forcing himself into the conversation for a utility role next season.
6. Joaquin Arias, 3b/ss, Giants. Arias first gained notoriety as the player traded, along with Alfonso Soriano, from the Yankees to the Rangers for Alex Rodriguez. He's finally cashing in on the tools that first got him into a Prospect Handbook in 2002. Another member of the Giants postseason roster who signed as a minor league free agent—along with Blanco—Arias made 74 starts at third and 38 at shortstop (in a platoon with lefty-hitting Brandon Crawford) while batting .270/.304/.389 in 344 PAs.
7. Donovan Solano, 2b, Marlins. One of the youngest minor league free agents available last offseason at age 24, Solano signed with Miami and impressed the club during spring training, making it to the final round of cuts. The Marlins turned to him after trading Omar Infante to the Tigers in July, and Solano responded by batting .295/.342/.375 in 316 PAs and making our postseason all-rookie team.
8. Travis Blackley, lhp, Athletics. Remarkably, the Giants also signed Blackley last offseason and brought him to spring training along with Arias and Blanco. (And don't forget to give them credit for identifying Ryan Vogelsong following the 2010 season.) Blackley annihilated Triple-A competition with Fresno, allowing one run over 23 innings with a 19-3 K-BB ratio and earning a callup to San Francisco. He struggled in four relief appearances, got outrighted and subsequently claimed on waivers by Oakland. With the Athletics, he cruised to a 3.86 ERA and 1.18 WHIP over 103 innings.
9. Pedro Ciriaco, 3b/ss, Red Sox. While his eight walks and 47 strikeouts in 259 at-bats don't engender a ton of confidence that he'll continue to hit .293, as he did this season, Ciriaco at least proved to be a solid contact hitter who can fill in at third base, shortstop or second base. You want small ball? Ciriaco ranked second on the Red Sox with 16 stolen bases (Dustin Pedroia) and sacrifice hits (Scott Podsednik) despite playing in just 76 games total.
10. Jared Burton, Sam Deduno and Casey Fien, rhps, Twins. Three of the last five times the Twins played as poorly as they did this season (an AL-worst 96 losses), they came away with Joe Mauer, Byron Buxton and Tim Belcher in the subsequent year's draft. (In the other two drafts they got Adam Johnson and Ryan Mills—and they didn't sign Belcher—but still, you gotta like those odds.) That is to say, Minnesota didn't have much to lose this season by extending long leashes to Burton (64 appearances), Deduno (15 starts), Fien (35 appearances), Luis Perdomo (15 appearances) or P.J. Walters (12 starts), a quintet of pitchers who all signed as minor league free agents last offseason. Deduno gave the Twins 75 innings and a 4.44 ERA and Fien logged a 0.97 WHIP and 3.6 K-BB ratio over 35 innings, but Burton turned out to be the best of the bunch. He won the set-up job and turned in his finest big league effort, striking out 55, walking 16 and allowing 41 hits in 62 innings. [Thanks to Mark in comments for mentioning Burton.]