Designate this! Pitchers help out at plate in NL playoffs

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NEW YORK (AP) Just when they'd been designated automatic outs, pitchers are making an impact at the plate in the National League playoffs.

Clayton Kershaw singled to start a three-run rally for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Jacob deGrom dropped down a flawless bunt that set up the New York Mets. And even Kyle Hendricks, overmatched in the batter's box all year, got the Chicago Cubs rolling by driving in a run with a safety squeeze against St. Louis.

After a season when pitchers hitting became a hot topic once again, several starters in October have boosted their team's offense by handling the bat with some skill.

''Honestly, I'm just trying to be annoying,'' Kershaw said after helping himself during a Game 4 win over the Mets. ''I didn't end up scoring, but I think that maybe got the guys going a little bit. ... So that was huge.''

More pivotal at-bats from pitchers could be coming, too.

Zack Greinke, who homered twice this season and batted .328 in 2013, starts for the Dodgers on Thursday night in the deciding Game 5 of their Division Series against the Mets. He will face deGrom, a college shortstop at Stetson before moving to the mound his junior year.

A perfectly placed sacrifice from deGrom advanced two slow runners in the series opener, leading to David Wright's two-run single in the seventh inning of a 3-1 victory at Los Angeles.

''We've tried to preach for five years here that the job of a pitcher is to be an athlete, to be a baseball player, not just be a pitcher,'' Mets manager Terry Collins said last month. ''I think they've done a tremendous job. We hit every day, they handle the bats very, very well, and I think it's made a big difference in our offense.''

Hendricks and the Cubs await the Mets-Dodgers winner in the NL Championship Series, where Chicago pitchers could be at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to hitting acumen - even though manager Joe Maddon frequently bats his starter eighth.

Chicago hurlers ranked 14th out of 15 NL teams in batting average (.114) this season and last in sacrifice bunts (17). They were 10th in OPS at .313, according to STATS.

Hendricks was among those dragging down the numbers. He went 3 for 60 (.050) with 24 strikeouts, while Jon Lester finished 4 for 62 (.065) and whiffed 30 times. Lester did manage his first major league hit in July after 66 fruitless at-bats - plus five more in the World Series.

On the plus side, ace Jake Arrieta hit two home runs and nearly had another. He also struck out 45 times in 79 at-bats.

How much effect that might actually have in the NLCS remains to be seen. But it's worth noting the Mets and Dodgers have a handful of pitchers who are pretty capable at the plate.

Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard homered this year for New York, which topped the NL in hits (52) and RBIs (28) by pitchers while finishing second in OPS (.388). Even beefy 42-year-old Bartolo Colon joined in the fun, setting career highs with eight hits and four RBIs, his large helmet often falling off his head on a hefty cut to the delight of fans and teammates.

''It's always an entertaining at-bat to watch,'' Mets lefty Jonathon Niese said.

Los Angeles was fifth in OPS (.335) and sacrifice bunts (34), STATS said.

Early in the season, after Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright injured his Achilles while batting, Washington newcomer Max Scherzer called for the National League to adopt the designated hitter just like the AL.

San Francisco star Madison Bumgarner, who has nine homers over the last two years, quickly took exception to that.

Then in September, Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka strained his hamstring running to first on a bunt, and the debate resumed.

But for the Mets, having a rotation that could hit was a legitimate help to their offense - especially when they were struggling so badly to score before Yoenis Cespedes and other dangerous bats were added in late July.

Collins credits first-year assistant batting coach Pat Roessler, who was put in charge of the pitchers hitting. He ramped up the workload with daily repetition, more velocity and tougher breaking balls during batting practice.

All that persistence paid off for Mets pitchers, who were a major league-record 0 for 64 at the plate last year before deGrom singled in his first career at-bat.

This season, a confident Collins even played hit-and-run with certain pitchers in the box, including deGrom and Niese.

''The guys work at it,'' Roessler said. ''They work on hit-and-runs and moving runners and gettin' guys in from third, and they've taken a lot of pride in it.''