Atlanta Braves v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Four

A bust for two years, Juan Uribe plays the hero now

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There was a great case for the Dodgers releasing Juan Uribe last winter.

Fresh off a 24-homer campaign for the world champion Giants, Uribe was given a three-year, $21 million deal as a free agent after the 2010 season. It was a move widely panned at the time, and it worked out even worse than anyone could have imagined, with Uribe hitting .204-4-28 in 270 at-bats in 2011 and .191-2-17 in 162 at-bats in 2012.

Things got so bad last year that Uribe appeared in one game and had one plate appearance over the final five weeks of the season. He was healthy and on the active roster the whole time, but the Dodgers refused to use him. His received one start after July 23, that coming on Aug. 14. All signs pointed to him being released over the winter. The Dodgers had Hanley Ramirez starting at shortstop and Luis Cruz penciled in at third, with Jerry Hairston Jr., Skip Schumaker and Nick Punto also on guaranteed deals as utilitymen. Of course, Uribe was making more than any of them except Ramirez, but that still didn’t figure to save him.

But, oddly, the DFA or release never came, and while the Dodgers would have been more than happy to trade him, he was back in spring training with the team. Ramirez’s injury opened up an infield spot, allowing all of the veteran backups to make the squad. Uribe still didn’t play a lot — he made three starts in the first two weeks and totaled 32 at-bats in April — but he contributed in his limited action and overtook Cruz, eventually settling in as the Dodgers’ primary third baseman and still keeping that role after Michael Young was acquired. After a strong finish that saw him collect five of his 12 homers in September, Uribe started all four games in the ALDS against the Braves. He homered Sunday in the Game 3 victory and then, after failing to get a sac bunt down, delivered the big blast on Monday, a two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth that gave the Dodgers a 4-3 lead they’d make stand up.

It’s a pretty amazing turnaround and still not his first. When he originally signed with the Giants, he was forced to take a minor league deal after hitting just seven homers for the White Sox the year before. Consistency obviously isn’t a strength. His four career-high OPSs came in 2001, 2004, 2009 and this year, for four different teams (he started off with the Rockies). The only one of those teams that never gave up on him was the Giants, unless you want to count the Dodgers, too. After all, here he is. Next stop: the NLCS.

Video: Nelson Cruz hits second-longest home run of 2016

ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 14:  Nelson Cruz #23 of the Seattle Mariners celebrates his solo homerun with Daniel Vogelbach #20 of the Seattle Mariners to take a 2-1 lead over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim during the seventh inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on September 14, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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There’s certainly never a bad time to hit a home run, but when you get the opportunity to crush a triple-deck, 493-foot shot off of Tyler Duffey, you should take it. With the Mariners down 2-0 to the Twins in the fourth inning, Cruz hammered a fastball to deep left field for his 39th long ball of the season — and the second-longest home run hit in 2016, to boot.

It doesn’t hurt that the Mariners are 1.5 games back of a playoff spot, although they’ll have to oust the Blue Jays, Orioles, or Tigers to get a wild card. They’ve gone 3-3 in the last week, dropping two consecutive series to the Astros and Blue Jays and taking their series opener against Minnesota 10-1 on Friday night.

Cruz, for his part, entered Saturday’s game with a .299/.337/.610 batting line and six home runs in September. According to ESPN.com’s Home Run Tracker, Cruz sits behind Edwin Encarnacion and Mike Napoli with 13 “no-doubt” home runs in 2016, third-most among major league sluggers. It’s safe to say he can add Saturday’s moonshot to that list.

Marlins’ outfielder and undisputed home run king Giancarlo Stanton remains untouched at the top of the Statcast leaderboard with a 504-ft. home run, and it’s difficult to envision any slugger reaching beyond that before the end of the season. Even so, Cruz won’t need to clear 500 feet to extend an impressive hitting record. One more home run will put the 36-year-old at 40 on the year, making 2016 his third consecutive season with at least 40 homers, and his second such season doing so in Seattle.

Report: John Farrell won’t rule out a postseason return for Pablo Sandoval

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 11:  Pablo Sandoval #48 of the Boston Red Sox looks on from the dugout before the Red Sox home opener against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park on April 11, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Orioles defeat the Red Sox 9-7.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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It’s been a strange season for Red Sox’ third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who lost his starting role in spring training, went 0-for-6 in three regular season appearances, and underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder in May. That was the last the Red Sox were supposed to hear about Sandoval until spring 2017, when he was expected to rejoin the team after a lengthy rehab stint in Florida.

On Saturday, manager John Farrell was telling a different story. Per MLB.com’s Sam Blum, Farrell hinted that Sandoval could return to the team as soon as October, albeit in a very limited capacity.

At the time of the surgery, it was all looking at the start of next Spring Training,” Farrell said. “We’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves here, but at the same time, we compliment him for the work he’s put in, the way he’s responded to the rehab, the way he’s worked himself into better condition. We’re staying open-minded.

If the 30-year-old does return in 2016, don’t expect him to look like the three-home run hitter of the 2012 World Series. Should the Red Sox lose another player to injury, Sandoval might be called on as a backup option, but he’s unlikely to see substantial playing time under any other circumstances. Despite making two appearances at DH in the instructional league, Sandoval has not started at third base since undergoing surgery, though Farrell noted that a return to third base would be the next logical step in his recovery process.

Sandoval has yet to hit his stride within the Red Sox’ organization after hitting career-worst numbers in 2015. According to FanGraphs, his Offensive Runs Above Average (Off) plummeted to -20.2, contributing approximately two wins fewer than the average offensive player in 2015. (The Diamondbacks’ Chris Owings held the lowest Off mark in 2015, with -26.3 runs below average.) Sandoval has not appeared in a postseason race since the Giants’ championship run in 2014.

Heading into Saturday evening, the Red Sox could clinch their spot in the postseason with a win over the Rays and an Orioles’ loss.