MLB’s 6 most pivotal players for the regular season’s final two weeks

The MLB pennant races enter the home stretch this weekend, with just two weeks remaining in the regular season and half of the 10 playoff spots still up for grabs.

While no single player can have the kind of impact in baseball that’s possible in many other sports, one player can still have a significant role in whether his team makes the postseason or not.

So with six clubs essentially battling for the final five playoff spots over these final two weeks, here are six players who could be pivotal to their teams’ chances to be part of the playoff picture.

The Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr. leads the National League with 39 home runs and leads the majors with a .635 slugging percentage.

Fernando Tatis Jr., San Diego Padres. We’ll start with the easiest one. Tatis has been the Padres’ best player all season long, and they’ve been much weaker when he’s had to miss time with injuries. For now though, he’s back to his usual self, hitting his National League-leading 39th home run in a win over the Giants on Thursday. Also, Tatis is back at his usual position at shortstop — after an injury to Jake Cronenworth shelved the team’s plans to play him in the outfield to protect his health.

The Padres face a brutal closing schedule, with six games against the Giants, three at home against the Braves and three at the Dodgers. They’ll need Tatis to be at his best if they’re going to outlast the Reds and Cardinals for the second NL wild-card berth.

George Springer, Toronto Blue Jays. Toronto’s big free-agent signing looked like a dud when he missed all but four of the team’s first 70 games. But since Springer returned, the Jays have gone 47-29 (.618) to move into the thick of the AL playoff race.

His .549 slugging percentage is second on the team and his ability to jump-start the offense from the leadoff spot has been an important part of the second-half surge. The 2017 World Series MVP, Springer has historically been at his best when the spotlight is brightest.

Nathan Eovaldi, Boston Red Sox. With Chris Sale injured for much of the season, Eovaldi has taken on the role as Boston’s ace. His 3.52 ERA is fifth-lowest in the American League among qualifiers. In addition, he has the lowest home run rate (0.7 HR/9) and lowest walk rate (1.7 BB/9) of any AL starter.

A first-time All-Star in 2021, Eovaldi has been even better down the stretch with a 1.90 ERA over his last seven outings. He’s currently on track to pitch the finale of a three-game series against the Yankees at Fenway Park next Sunday. If there’s ever a time for him to assert his ace credentials, that head-to-head matchup is it — especially if the teams split the first two games.

Aroldis Chapman, New York Yankees. Just like the Yankees as a team, Chapman’s season has been a perpetual roller-coaster ride. He’s had stretches where he’s looked unhittable … and there have been times he’s been almost incapable of finding the strike zone.

Having the dominant version of Chapman is almost essential to New York’s playoff hopes because the rest of the bullpen is seemingly running on fumes. Any late lead lost down the stretch could potentially cost the Yanks a spot in the postseason.

Tyler O’Neill, St. Louis Cardinals. Overshadowed on the roster by perennial All-Stars Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado and Yadier Molina, the underappreciated O’Neill leads the team in slugging percentage (.526) and OPS (.876).

Even with all that power, O’Neill is also one of the game’s fastest players, ranking in the 98th percentile in Statcast’s sprint speed metric. Plus, as a 2020 NL Gold Glove winner, he provides outstanding defense in left field. He’ll need to keep producing to keep the Cards in flight.

Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds. Votto has been one of the driving forces behind the Reds’ second-half surge into the playoff picture. However, they’ve hit the skids at the worst possible time, losing 12 of their last 17 games. It’s probably no coincidence that Votto has posted a .192/.338/.423 slash line over that same span (since Aug. 28) with two home runs and six RBI.

This season, Votto has a 1.024 OPS against righties, compared to .666 against lefties. That should give him a chance to finish strong with the Reds projected to face just two left-handed starting pitchers in their final 12 games.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB playoffs: Six players who are crucial to their teams’ success