Each year there are players who take their games to the next level in the hunt for playoff baseball. Some of those same players then become household names on a national scale, as David Freese did last fall. This year, there will be more players stepping up to alter their team's fortunes. Here's a look at some of those players in the American League.
Ivan Nova - New York Yankees
The Yankees need Ivan Nova to be the pitcher that pitched this weekend against the Rays. Premium stuff pitchers tend to be what wins out in playoff baseball and down the stretch, and Nova has that type of arsenal. In fact, what goes unrecognized is that when he's right, his moving fastball, power curveball, and slider combination stack up well against almost any pitcher's arsenal in the American League. Particularly with CC Sabathia struggling, New York needs their 25-year-old right-hander to pitch to his potential down the stretch.
Manny Machado - Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles are not your traditional contender. They've allowed more runs than they've scored; it's safe to say that they will need to continue to pull off this run in unconventional fashion. To do that, they will need to continue to get contributions from Manny Machado that are above and beyond what you could expect from a 20-year-old. Something to keep an eye on though is the number of sliders Machado sees. He's beginning to see a steady diet of them from the opposition. How quickly he continues to adapt and drive the ball the other way will determine how much he can help the O's in the final weeks.
Evan Longoria - Tampa Bay Rays
Evan Longoria steps up his game against some of the best pitchers and teams of the league. He couldn't have played a more significant role in last year's Rays' run and they will need a similar performance from him in 2012. Specifically, they will look to him to provide the power that their lineup desperately needs. And, him remaining healthy will also of course be another big key.
Max Scherzer - Detroit Tigers
Justin Verlander and what he can do on the mound generally drives the Detroit Tigers. But, teams with deep playoff aspirations need that second horse to achieve their goals. While there may be more consistent number two starters out there, no team in baseball has a second starter as capable of completely shutting down a lineup like Max Scherzer. And, the best news of all for Detroit? Scherzer has seemingly saved the best of his already explosive fastball for the stretch run. He's averaged 95 mph or better in five straight starts, something he has not done all season. A Max Scherzer with a lot left in the tank and gaining steam is a scary concept for American League opposition.
Chris Sale - Chicago White Sox
Chris Sale hasn't lucked into having a Cy Young caliber season. There's a very good reason he's been as good as he has been, and the reason he'll continue to play a huge role. Yes, the 91-95 mph fastball from a very difficult left-handed angle makes him tough, but his ability to mix his pitches has been remarkable for a first year starter. Sale throws his slider over 25% of the time and his changeup over 18% of the time. A pitcher with his plus fastball that's able to do that is going to be a force against even the top lineups in the league. A team like Chicago needs a big time ace to win out in this race, but there are no questions as to whether Sale can be that guy down the stretch.