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#pounditThursday, October 29, 2020

5 MLB pitchers who need to step up down the stretch

Yu Darvish

It’s do-or-die time for a number of Major League Baseball contenders. Pennant races are tight, particularly the wild card races, though there are some division battles that remain well worth watching too. It’s to the point of the season where little things will make all the difference.

One of those little things could end up being who gets the best, most reliable pitching. Who has a starter who can neutralize an opposing lineup and win a game on his own? Perhaps more pertinent, who needs a pitcher to step up and be that ace? Here are five pitchers who need to step up and carry their teams in September.

5. Max Scherzer, Nationals

To be fair to Scherzer, his inability to contribute in the second half thus far isn’t really his fault. He was sidelined by a back injury for almost all of July and only recently returned to action. Scherzer knows he has to watch himself carefully, but with the Nationals in a tight race for the NL Wild Card, there may come a point where Washington must ride their ace. Scherzer has been one of the game’s most dominant pitchers in recent seasons. To maintain that lead, they’re going to need him to find it again down the stretch.

4. Aaron Nola, Phillies

Nola started the 2019 season terribly and took a while to turn things around. As late as June 15, his ERA stood at 4.89 despite a 6-1 record. He’s posted an ERA under 2.50 since then, and that simply must keep up. The Phillies are very light in terms of starters, especially with Jake Arrieta sidelined for the remainder of the season. No one behind Nola has been nearly as good. The Phillies are in a very tough fight for a wild card spot, and their success — or failure — may hinge on Nola’s performances.

3. Noah Syndergaard, Mets

Syndergaard got completely torched on Wednesday night, allowing 10 runs (nine earned) on nine hits over three innings. He’s striking out fewer than a batter an inning this season, and his ERA is the highest of his MLB career to date. Despite all that, he’s still a good pitcher. Prior to getting shellacked Wednesday, he had turned in five straight excellent outings, which coincided with the Mets’ turnaround. Jacob deGrom is the ace of this staff, but if Syndergaard can pitch at his very best through September, the Mets will stay right in the thick of things.

2. Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees

The Yankees seem to have everything except a pitcher who’s performing like an ace. CC Sabathia is past his prime, and James Paxton hasn’t been consistent enough since being acquired from the Seattle Mariners. The responsibility and expectation may ultimately lie with Tanaka, who has an ERA hovering uncomfortably close to 5 and underwhelming strikeout numbers. Tanaka has a history of success, plus a record of performing well in big games — check his 1.50 playoff ERA in five starts. The Yankees will probably win the AL East no matter what he does, but building up momentum ahead of the playoffs will be hugely important.

1. Yu Darvish, Cubs

This would be the perfect time for Darvish to come good after the Cubs invested so much in him. He’s homer-prone, but his strikeout numbers have not dropped, and there have been signs since the All-Star break that he might be getting it together. Darvish has been iffy since arriving in Chicago, but the Cubs need him right now. He delivered his last time out and has learned a new pitch thanks to a teammate. The Cubs have been incapable of pulling away in the NL Central, and a big part of that is down to the lack of a dominant, reliable ace. Darvish has the quality to be that. Whether he manages it or not may be the difference between the Cubs winning the division or being relegated to the Wild Card Game — or worse.

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