As this long season wore on, many fans of Arizona’s voodoo professional baseball team started to joke about the improbable victories their Diamondbacks began to ring up. One triumph after another, coming from behind, often winning with dramatic home runs in the late innings, many of them by the franchise’s lesser lights, some of them long gone back to the minors or traded away.
It has become second nature out here in the arid lands to not only think the Dbacks can rally late, it is expected. Down three runs in the eighth? No sweat, man. It’s in the bag.
To cement the point, it happened again today in San Francisco in the rubber game against the Giants, the only viable competition left for stopping the Dbacks steamroller to a National League West pennant. Not only was it the rubber game of a 3-game series, but it was one of the most important games of the season for both teams.
Lose and the Giants would trail by a manageable 5 games with 22 remaining. Win and, for all practical purposes, the Dbacks would be up by 7 and pretty much put the Giants in their rearview. Win and play .500 baseball the rest of the way would force the Giants to go 18-4 just to tie.
So there they were, the Dbacks, down 1-0 in the 8th with one out and their star right fielder, Justin Upton, already in the lockerroom after being ejected. And third baseman Ryan Roberts at the bat. Talk about the improbable, that’s Roberts, aka the Tatman for all of his ungodly tattoos. He was cut late in spring training and sent down to Triple-A Reno. But when he was recalled to the Big Team, he suddenly became Superman and, really, the outward symbol of the unsuspecting Godzilla the Dbacks have become this season.
So, anyway, the Tatman blasts a home run off Giants starter Ryan Vogelsong to tie the game at 1. Ho-hum. A single and a walk brings to bat one Willie Bloomquist, a 33-year-old role player who was forced into the lineup when shortstop Stephen Drew pulled up lame more than a month ago. Bloomquist who said after the game, “I haven’t been swinging the bat that great,” smashed a triple down the right field line to break open the game. Ho-hum again. The Dbacks ended up with a 4-1 victory and a secure hold on first place.
It is an amazing story.
In 2010, the Dbacks sported the third worst record in baseball, 65-97. They finished 27 games behind the Giants, who went on to win the World Series. Now, they are 20 games above .500 at 80-60. That’s a turn-around of 52 games in one season.
How it did it happen, outside of the fact the NL West is probably the worst division in Major League Baseball? In two words. Kevin Towers, the General Manager. The owners who have thin billfolds, gussied up the nerve to hire a real baseball man in Towers, if only for two years, after the previous GM, Josh Byrnes, made the franchise a train wreck and a joke to serious observers. Byrnes burned up all the minor-league talent and traded away some of its most talented players for a song (think Carols Quentin of the White Sox, Carlos Gonzalez of the Rockies and ace closer Jose Val Verde) in mostly crazy trades and named a neophyte, A. J. Hinch, as manager. To their credit, the owners fired both Byrnes and Hinch in the middle of last season.
Towers did two smart things almost immediately. He placed an emphasis on pitching, trading away in the process the popular whiff king, third baseman Mark Reynolds, and hired a focused, hard-nosed manager, Kirk Gibson. Not only that but Towers allowed Gibson to recruit what is arguably the best and perhaps most expensive coaching staff in the game: Don Baylor (hitting), Alan Trammell (bench) and Charles Nagy (pitching).
And although the voodoo hitting has been right out of fantasyland, the pitching has been the key. No one has been more important to the team than ace Ian Kennedy, now 18-4, with a decent shot to win the Cy Young award. And right behind is hard-throwing Daniel Hudson. The two could each win 20 games this season. The other starters have proven solid and closer J. J. Putz has become almost a sure-thing. In toto, things moved ahead a lot faster than anyone thought.
Naysayers thought the Dbacks were fried on July 20 when Drew suffered a compound fracture of his right leg sliding into home. But, in fact, the team has played better without him, going 28-14 since then. They actually trailed the Giants at the time by 4 1/2 games.
I’ve written it once and I’ll write in one more time. This is not a baseball team, it’s a religious cult. This team believes and if there is a difference between being a mediocre team and a good one, then it’s that, pure and simple.
The funny thing too is that with their nifty pitching staff and off days due to travel, the Dbacks could go a long way in the playoffs. Maybe even as far as the Giants did last year. And to think the current edition Dbacks have only one player, Upton, who could clearly start for the 2001 World Series-champion Dbacks. And Kennedy and Hudson would have to take back seats to the champs’ Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. It doesn’t add up, yet . . . .
If someone doesn’t create a mocking T-shirt saying, “Was there ever a doubt?” then that someone is missing the financial boat.