SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – It's true, as Daniel Hudson was saying Wednesday morning, "People were waiting for us to collapse."
The Arizona Diamondbacks staggered away from training camp a year ago looking like they'd have to play out of their skulls to match their 65 wins from 2010. You wouldn't have blamed the clubbies for packing extra towels, you know, for when Kirk Gibson's head finally did explode.
The general manager, Kevin Towers, had come in at the end of that 97-loss disaster and couldn't believe what he found. When he addressed the team for the first time in the clubhouse, some players couldn't be bothered to be in uniform, or to look up from their iPads, or even to get up off the floor.
"I'm not going to name names," Towers said.
But, damn …
"We looked like a minor-league team," he said. "We played like a minor-league team."
We all expected a minor-league team.
So it was with skepticism that we watched the Diamondbacks do what the Diamondbacks did over the final five weeks of 2011 – they didn't simply hold off the San Francisco Giants, they buried them.
They then took the Milwaukee Brewers to the 10th inning of Game 5 in the division series after being down oh-two.
Yeah, we're still waiting on that collapse.
"We never did," Hudson said.
They never did.
It was, turned out, a wonderful story of a barbed-wire manager with the heart of pine-tar goo, the pitching staff built from what could be described as other organizations' outliers, and a lineup that the season before struck out almost 10 times a game.
That has led to this: Now what?
Towers stood late Wednesday morning just beyond the left-field fence of a practice field here. A baseball landed with authority about six feet away.
"Maybe we should move," he said.
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He inherited an awful lot of this team. He stuck with Gibson. He renovated the bullpen. And then he fell, well, if not in love, then in something like lust with these guys, who a year before could barely look him in the eye.
Now, he views them as gamers. They're accountable for what happens out there. They command their fastballs and work their counts (better) and play to their ballpark and make him very proud. They sign autographs. And when they're asked, they drive into the community and host charity events and read books and go on TV.
"As Gibby told them," Towers recounted, "we'll define our history. Us, in this room. Not what anybody writes or thinks about us. We'll be the ones wearing the horns."
We all know the history of the Diamondbacks: 65 wins in 1998, 100 in '99; 51 wins in 2004, 77 in 2005; 65 wins in 2010, 94 in '11.
And back again.
Yeah, sometimes you wear the horns and sometimes you ride 'em.
Fourteen seasons as a franchise, nine of them in first or last. The Diamondbacks have gone worst to first twice. And twice they've gone first to worst within two seasons.
This isn't a team; it's a teenage daughter.
But, look around. If the Diamondbacks are to rediscover the stability of those turn-of-the-century teams (one of which beat the New York Yankees in the World Series), it will be with that pitching staff, with a rotation built out of a Yankee (Ian Kennedy), a White Sox (Daniel Hudson), an Athletic (Trevor Cahill, as of this winter), an Angel (Joe Saunders) and one of their own (Josh Collmenter).
Beyond Kennedy, the 21-game winner, and, at times, Hudson, the rotation wasn't dominant last year. In fact, its ERA was fourth-best in the NL West. The Diamondbacks never did settle on a trustworthy fifth man, didn't commit to Collmenter as a starter until mid-May, and suffered through the occasional Saunders lapses. But Towers recognized that Chase Field played fast and small, and ultimately he was encouraged by the fact that only the Phillies got more innings from their starters than the Diamondbacks.
This was good. Under the direction of pitching coach Charles Nagy, his guys weren't the most talented or the most decorated, but they pushed deeper into games.
This was promising. They were better in August and September. Even as they pitched up to and through 200 innings, in most cases more than they ever had, they were getting it, winning games, putting away the Giants.
Maybe that's who they are now. Maybe that's now what.
"There's no room for settling in this game," Hudson said. "We're not going to surprise anybody this year."
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You hear it a lot in Diamondbacks camp. Gibson reminded them they hadn't done anything, only more colorfully. So Collmenter came back determined to get that curveball right. Hudson and Saunders talked about improving their command. Cahill, new to the staff, had the same thought.
And they show up every day, take the ball, stand alongside Kennedy and fend off the collapse.
It's no bother, really, but they're pretty sure there are folks out there who still won't believe. Maybe that's the nature of the business. Maybe it just comes with being a Diamondback.
"Now we'll be proving last year wasn't a fluke," Collmenter said.
It's true, it never ends.
But, on this one, not guilty.
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- Kevin Towers
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