Diamondbacks exceeding even their own expectations in rapid rise to contention

PHOENIX — OK, the Arizona Diamondbacks will be honest with you, they didn’t see this coming, either.

Oh, they thought they would finally be competitive.

They knew they had the athletic talent to create havoc.

But to sit here in June, tied for the second-best record in the National League, there aren't enough prickly pear margaritas in town to make them brazen enough to believe this was going to happen.

“The way we finished last year,’’ Diamondbacks president Derrick Hall told USA TODAY Sports, “I thought we’d be onto something. But I didn’t think it would happen this year. I thought next year.

“They’re sure proving me wrong.’’

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Arizona Diamondbacks players and fans celebrate as second baseman Ketel Marte (4) scores the game-winning run against the Colorado Rockies on June 1.
Arizona Diamondbacks players and fans celebrate as second baseman Ketel Marte (4) scores the game-winning run against the Colorado Rockies on June 1.

This is a team that lost 110 games just two years ago. They haven’t reached the playoffs since 2017. It’s been a decade since they won the NL West. And 22 years since they won their only World Series.

Now, here they are, heading out for a week-long trip against the Washington Nationals and Detroit Tigers, tied for first place in the NL West with the Los Angeles Dodgers. They are 35-25, and until Sunday, had had at least a share of the National League’s best record this late in the season for the first time since 2007.

Yes sir, life is good in the desert, where fans are returning to Chase Field to root for the home team again. Their average attendance is 20,790, an increase of more than 1,500 fans per game, and they drew 96,339 in their three-game series against Atlanta this weekend. It was their largest crowd for a three-game series since Sept. 27-29, 2019, against the St. Louis Cardinals.

“We know they’re here,’’ says Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo, who received a one-year contract extension through 2024 on Sunday. “We’ve just got to earn their trust back.’’

Lovullo can certainly relate. He was in his fifth year as manager when the D-backs finished a record 55 games out of first place with their 52-110 mark, outscored by 204 runs. The D-backs debated whether to bring him back, and finally decided to give him a one-year contract and another chance to prove himself.

“It was dark,’’ Lovullo says, “it was real dark. Two years ago, I didn’t know where I was. I was lost emotionally. But I couldn’t show that because I had a team to be in charge of …

“I never imagined sitting here saying that I was going to be guaranteed another couple of years."

The D-backs front office, led by GM Mike Hazen, believed it would be unfair to fire Lovullo when he was fighting the NL West powerhouses with a water pistol. Lovullo, who saw the burgeoning talent in the minor leagues, led by outfielder Corbin Carroll, knew that someone was going to benefit one day. So why not him?

He started pushing his players, letting them know that he wasn’t running a developmental camp. They were here to win. If he was going to go down, he was going to do it his way.

“That’s probably been the biggest area of my growth,’’ Lovullo says. “When I first got here, I was more about just allowing guys to perform and go out there and do what they do best, putting them in a comfortable situation and supporting them.

“But I’ve learned over the last couple of years how important it is to hold the staff and players accountable to get better every single day. There were some push moments where I’ve had to learn how to be comfortable having uncomfortable conversations. I’m not good at outward confrontation.

“But every once in a while, I can lose it.’’

The D-backs may be arriving a year ahead of schedule, but they don’t want to hear it. They may have the smallest payroll in the NL West, but they’re playing with a sense of urgency, which has been reciprocated by the front office.

The D-backs have shuttled young players back and forth to the minors all season. If you’re not performing at the big-league level, there’s a one-way ticket to Triple-A Reno awaiting in your locker.

They backed up the talk just three weeks into the season. They released veteran starter Madison Bumgarner, swallowing $34 million, replacing him with unproven rookie starters.

“I ask our players and staff to have urgency around how we’re going to play and attack,’’ Hazen said at the time. “I can’t be a hypocrite and ask for that, and not do it in my job.’’

Well, the D-backs have gone 22-13 since Bumgarner was officially released. They are 15-7 since May 12, just one game behind the Houston Astros for the best record in  baseball.

“We’re not surprised,’’ says D-backs first baseman Christian Walker, who hit 36 homers and won a Gold Glove last year. “It feels like a lot of people around us are surprised at this, but this is what we expected.

“This is what we knew we were capable of.’’

Says Cy Young candidate Zac Gallen: “To be honest, you just never know when it’s going to happen, but I knew we were a good team. We’re always in the dogfight. Last year, we were too, but we didn’t have enough. Now, we have enough to win, for sure.’’

Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Zac Gallen pitches against the Colorado Rockies during a May 30 game at Chase Field.
Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Zac Gallen pitches against the Colorado Rockies during a May 30 game at Chase Field.

There’s not a single moment, the D-backs say, that they can point to their turnaround. They showed improvement down the stretch last year, going 29-32 the last two months. They played well in spring training (16-14). Still, nothing really suggested they would have the best record in the National League.

They opened the season with eight of their first 10 games against the powerful Los Angeles Dodgers, kings of the NL West. Instead of wilting, they embraced the challenge, winning five of the eight games.

The Dodgers were a team that had kicked sand in the D-backs’ faces for years, going 49-18 against them since 2019.

The tide dramatically turned.

“L.A. had beaten the crap out of us in the past,’’ veteran pitcher Merrill Kelly says. “Even though it was super early in the season, we held our own. That was a moment where we knew we had a pretty good team …

“I mean, there was a time in 2020 and 2021, we couldn’t win a game to save our lives.’’

The D-backs used that early success to build momentum, which built confidence, which resulted in winning, leaving them sitting atop the NL West mountaintop.

“Pretty early into the season, the first couple of weeks, you could see it,’’ Walker said. “You could see the energy building. You could feel the momentum, the confidence growing. It wasn’t fake.

“We started believing in ourselves a little bit more. It went from feeling, 'Hey, we can be a good team,’ to 'We are a good team!'

“We just got to go out and let it show.’’

The D-backs are doing just that, and a whole lot more.

They consistently put the ball in play, ranking second in batting average, third in total bases and striking out the third-fewest times in the National League.

They play surreal defense with a lightning-quick outfield that brings back memories of the St. Louis Cardinals in the 80s, ranking first in the majors in Defensive Runs Above Average, according to FanGraphs.

They create havoc on the basepaths, stealing 55 bases, third-most in the National League, while getting caught just 10 times.

They have a powerful 1-2 punch atop the rotation with Gallen (7-2, 2.75 ERA; 6-0 with a 0.96 ERA at home) and Kelly (7-3, 2.80 ERA).

Outfielder Lourdes Gurriel (.310, 9 homers, 35 RBI, .909 OPS) and catcher Gabriel Moreno (.282 and leading MLB in throwing out 53.8% of baserunners), whom they acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays for outfielder Dalton Varsho, have played vital roles in the D-backs’ success.

And, they have Carroll, the rookie sensation who is a nightly human highlight reel, hitting .286 with an .896 OPS, 10 homers, 25 RBI, 16 stolen bases and a Gold Glove that awaits. He is proving to be worth every penny of the eight-year, $111 million contract the D-backs invested in him this spring.

“This kid is special,’’ Hall says. “The speed. The intelligence. The attitude. The preparation. The confidence. I don’t think I’ve seen a rookie like him.

“He’s a rookie unicorn.’’

The D-backs aren’t putting playoff tickets on sale yet; the season barely is one-third complete. The D-backs know there’ll be plenty of potholes they’ll have to navigate on their path to the postseason.

Still, when you look at what’s happening around the rest of the National League — the epic meltdown by the San Diego Padres, the struggles by the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets, and the sheer mediocrity of the NL Central — it’s hard to envision the D-backs not being part of the playoff picture.

They may be young, but they’re acting mature, refusing to ever give in, producing 17 comeback victories in the first two months.

“Their resilience has been the biggest surprise to me,’’ Hall says. “This team has a lot of fight. It keeps coming back. It’s been fun to see, but we still have a long ways to go.

“We will have bumps in the road. We will hit some tough stretches. We’re going to have to overcome adversity.’’

Yep, just like their heartbreaking 8-5 defeat Sunday when they were one out away from winning the series against Atlanta, winners of five consecutive NL East titles, only for Eddie Rosario to hit a game-winning grand slam.

“It was definitely a legit test to see what we were made of,’’ Gallen said, “to see how we stack up against a team like that.’’

It was also a subtle reminder that the D-backs have flaws. Their unproven bullpen ranks only in the middle of the pack with a 4.47 ERA and opponents' .250 batting average. They don’t have a full-time closer. And they’re the only team in baseball with four pitchers who have already appeared in at least 26 games.

They have two stud starters in Gallen and Kelly, but then it’s a severe dropoff to Zach Davies, who has made just four starts since coming off the injured list, and two rookies.

Yet, the D-backs are loaded with outfield depth, they have baseball’s No. 3 farm system and they have the option of playing in the deep end or shallow end of the trade deadline pool.

“We need to see where we’re at,’’ Hazen says. “If were in a certain position, we’ll be more aggressive. We are going to be mindful of what we’re willing to trade from a long-term standpoint, but if we’re in a position to make this team better, we’ll do it.’’

The D-backs, after enduring their painful rebuild, won’t be stupid either. They are not going to trade Jordan Lawlar, Druw Jones, Brandon Pfaadt or any of their other prized prospects for a mid-tier starter or a veteran reliever.

They would love to win the NL West, play deep into October, and go where no D-backs team has gone since 2001, but aren’t about to mortgage the future, either.

“We made that mistake in the past,’’ Hall said, “thinking we were just one player away. We won’t do that again. We’ve done such a nice job rebuilding our system, we don’t want to give away all of our assets.

“But we owe it to our fans to be buyers.’’

There’s still two months before the D-backs must decide just how aggressive they want to be at the deadline, but after all of the misery, winning one postseason game since 2011, they truly believe their time has arrived.

“I have never stopped thinking about the ’21 season,’’ Lovullo said, “even as we are coming out the other end. It is extremely motivating for me. I think about standing on top of the mountain with this group, and what that will feel like.

“I’ll remember what ’21 felt like, and it will make it even sweeter.’’

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Diamondbacks a legit contender, just two years after losing 110 games