The issue of D’s emergence as World Series contenders

Jeff PassanespnOctober 27, 2023 at 07:00 AM ET8 minutes to read

Eric Hartline – USA Today Sports

On the seventh At the start of a game in which the team he built clinched a World Series berth, Mike Hazen overhauled the visiting clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park and isolated himself in the manager’s office. Hazen, the general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks for the past seven years, paced around the room, sitting in a chair, squatting on the toilet, and standing in the bathroom shower with the lights off. His nerves were frayed. He could not bear to watch the match taking place on the field. Instead, he was watching the crowning moment of his career on a 5-inch mobile phone screen.

Normally, Hazen’s neuroses wouldn’t prompt him to abandon a live show for a delayed telecast until the ninth inning. “I got a lot of scar tissue in the ninth inning,” Hazen said, referring to the Diamondbacks’ key nine-point lead in the ninth inning this season. But the gravity of it all in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series got so overpowering that he needed to isolate himself two innings early — even wearing a pair of noise-canceling headphones to drown out crowd noise that would otherwise ruin his broadcast. He feeds.

Yes, it took seven years of hard work, but somehow it felt like everything was happening too fast. Over the past year, Hazen adjusted to life without his wife, Nicole, who died in August 2022 after battling glioblastoma for more than two years. His team spent most of the first half of the season at the top of the Western Conference division, then collapsed in July and bottomed out on a nine-game losing streak that left them at 57-59 on August 11. Playoffs as the last Wild Card team with 84 wins, knocking off Milwaukee in the Wild Card round, sweeping the NL West champion Los Angeles Dodgers in the Division Series, and now, as witnessed from manager Torey Lovullo’s office, coming to Philadelphia. 3-2 in the NLCS and beat the Phillies in Games 6 and 7 – surprising him.

“I really didn’t expect us to get to this moment,” Hazen said after the win. “We’re not preparing for the offseason, we’re not having meetings. I’m getting nervous and I’m walking the streets of Philadelphia. It’s the end of October, and we’re still playing baseball. That’s what I think about every day when I wake up — and we have at least four more baseball games to go.”

The most unusual World Series ever begins Friday in Arlington, Texas, when the Diamondbacks take on the American League champion Texas Rangers, who themselves snuck into the postseason with a 90-72 score. Two years ago, Arizona tied for the worst record in baseball at 52-110, and the Rangers, who went 60-102, weren’t much better. This will be the Diamondbacks’ second title, after winning their only other appearance in 2001; Texas has never won a championship in its 63 years of existence. But pedigree and record aside: this is a pair of teams that make up in quality what they lack in other areas.

Texas, at least, was acting like a team with World Series aspirations. General manager Chris Young has lined up an all-star group, supplemented them with talent from the Texans’ strong farm system and complemented them with solid acquisitions at the trade deadline. Despite their circuitous journey up to this week — in which they returned to the Wild Card round, losing three straight games to the Astros at home in the American League Championship Series — the Rangers have found their mettle in the postseason and have followed the tried-and-true October formula: the ball goes far; And the team goes away. The Diamondbacks are the biggest surprise.

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However, it should not be excluded. These aren’t the Diamondbacks of August, whose weaknesses in the ninth inning highlighted the irrational side in Hazen. They stomped the Brewers, embarrassed the Dodgers, took on the Phillies, and then flattened them out, too. Arizona adopted the slogan “Nobody Believes in Us” because it’s true that no one believed they could find themselves here. For all the panic about the best regular-season teams missing out on the 119th World Series, and about this matchup between wild-card teams who happen to have saved their best baseball for October, it’s a good idea to avoid falling into that trap.

Much of the attention directed at the Diamondbacks has to do with what they are not. Maybe it’s time to focus on what they are.

“we are playing “The right brand of baseball,” Diamondbacks outfielder Jake McCarthy said, and by the right brand, he means something very specific: Arizona is playing like a team from the 1980s that has time-traveled to 2023.

The Diamondbacks aren’t immune to some of the game’s recent boom — they regularly pull their starting pitchers when the opposing team’s lineup changes for the third time — but otherwise, McCarthy is right. They don’t rely on home runs. They appreciate excellent defense. They steal bases and take extra bases at will. They are screaming for crying out loud. They work with an attention to detail forcing opponents to make plays and punishing them if they don’t.

“We play old-school baseball,” Arizona setup man Kevin Jenkel said. “Everybody wants to slug, everybody wants to hit tickets. We do it a little differently. We run the bases really well. We play really good defense. Focus on hard hitting, counter defense. And everybody takes responsibility for that. That’s a credit to our coaching.” . This is a credit to leadership. This is a credit to everyone, because we are proud of it. And it’s just one of those things that everyone cares about. “It’s not what’s going to put you in the spotlight, but when it comes to crunch time and winning baseball games, we do it.”

Assembling a roster of 26 players who embrace this philosophy has taken efforts from across the organization and coming together over the years. Star rookie right fielder Corbin Carroll and rookie right fielder Brandon Pvadt, who started Game 7, came via the draft in 2019 and 2020, respectively. NLCS MVP Ketel Marte (in 2016, Hazen’s first major acquisition), ace Zac Gallen (in 2019) and 23-year-old catcher Gabi Moreno (in 2022) all reached trades. First baseman Christian Walker joined Arizona as a waiver claim after three teams waived him in spring training six years ago. Game 2 player Meryl Kelly was signed in 2018 after playing in Korea for four years. Shortstop Geraldo Perdomo was signed 16th overall from the Dominican Republic. The only free agent signings from last winter on Arizona’s roster are veteran Evan Longoria and reliever Miguel Castro.

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However, Arizona didn’t find the same version that was on offer throughout October until late August. On August 27, Ryan Thompson, a 31-year-old outfielder whose sinker hits around 91 mph — about 3 mph slower than the average big-league fastball, is common on a Diamondbacks team that ranked 28th among 30 teams in fastball speed this year — he pitched a scoreless inning less than a week after Arizona signed him to a minor league deal. He went through unclaimed waivers by every team before Tampa Bay released him and the Diamondbacks, who were desperate for bullpen help, took a flier.

He tossed 5.2 pound-for-pound innings in the NLCS, paving the way for Paul Seewald, the closer Arizona acquired from the Invincibles from Seattle at the trade deadline, and who has allowed three baserunners in eight scoreless innings this season. Combined with Ginkel’s nine innings, the trio transformed Arizona’s bullpen from a recurring nightmare for Hazen into a peaceful dream.

The bullpen saved the Diamondbacks’ season, as they notched a pair of one-run wins in Games 3 and 4 to send the series back to Philadelphia, where they rediscovered an identity that had temporarily disappeared. Through the first five games of the series, the Diamondbacks stole just one base, a far cry from their record stealing of bases — 166, second-most in MLB — during the regular season. Then they stole eight in the last two games of the NLCS due to their desire to run a consistent bite into the side of Phillies pitchers.

He’s talking about changes that reveal Arizona’s experience in game planning. While Phillies manager Rob Thompson stuck to the same lineup in all seven games and the team’s pitchers did the same with their infield arsenals, Arizona tweaked and tweaked, trying to exploit the shortcomings of Philadelphia’s vaunted lineup.

Arizona’s pitching room is full of eager and curious minds, from pitching coach Brent Strome to Dan Haren, the three-time All-Star who serves as a strategist. As the NLCS went on, Kelly and Pvadt relied much less on the four-seam fastballs that Phillies batters were catching. Kelly’s six-pitch combination has always puzzled hitters, and he used that to his advantage in his second appearance: The changeup he threw more than any pitch in Game 2 was his fourth-most-used pitch in Game 6. Pfaadt went from 32 homers with four homers in Game 3 to Half that in Game 7, where as many sinkers are thrown as heaters and more sweepers are opened than both.

This kind of attention to detail exemplifies the Diamondbacks’ approach. If their roster doesn’t fit the style of baseball these days, they’re figuring out how their analytics offerings can fit them better. This kind of pragmatism is perhaps best seen in something as simple as defense. When a team’s offense lacks the firepower to power its way to victory, the little things matter exponentially more. So from the beginning of spring training, Lovullo preached the importance of playing fair baseball. I took the message.

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Arizona committed just 56 errors, the second-fewest of any team in baseball history.

The defense, the bullpen, the focus on the little things: This is how a team that has been to the LCS just five times — a third of the 15 Texans on the other side of the bracket — gets to the World Series.

In mid-August, In the middle of a second-inning swoon, some of the Diamondbacks players gathered around Dave McKay, the team’s first base coach, for story time. Near the end of the 2006 season, when he was coaching in St. Louis, the Cardinals lost seven straight games. They finished the season 83-78. Over the next month, they beat one division champion (San Diego), won another in seven games (New York) and went on to win the World Series. The 2006 Cardinals are the only team with fewer than 84 wins to capture the championship.

“The beauty of the World Series and the playoffs is that it’s not always the better team that wins,” said McKay, who is in his 40th year as a coach. “I’ve been to six world championships. Two we should have won and lost. Two we should have lost and won. It’s just a matter of who plays better.”

The Rangers are certainly a force. It’s not just the power of running their house. Game 1 starter Nathan Eovaldi and projected Game 2 starter Jordan Montgomery have October. During the regular season, Texas was exceptional on the field as well, committing just one more foul than Arizona. Like the Diamondbacks, the Rangers are much stronger than their record indicates.

Considering the Diamondbacks is confusing. They respect the Rangers, of course — they’ve also seen Adolis Garcia single-handedly smash as many home runs in the ALCS as every Diamondback has done in the NLCS. Knowing the depth of the Texans’ lineup and that future Hall of Fame manager Bruce Bochy is at the helm, the Diamondbacks know they can’t rest on their laurels. All that matters in October is what you do next.

They also feel prepared to take on this challenge, largely because of what this month has already given them. For Carroll, Moreno, Perdomo and Pvadt, it’s education. For Jalen, Kelly, Marte and Tommy Pham, a player acquired at the trade deadline who radiates intensity, this is validation. For Hazen, even with the emotions of the ninth inning, that’s a relief.

Before the start of Game 7, Lovullo walked by his office and saw Hazen sitting with Mike Fitzgerald, the Diamondbacks’ assistant general manager. A few minutes before the most important game of their lives, Lovullo poked his head in to talk to them.

“No matter what happens today, I love you guys,” Lovullo said.

Who are the Arizona Diamondbacks? They are a team that knows how lucky they are to be in the World Series. Which he also got.

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