PHILADELPHIA — As the Arizona Diamondbacks put the finishing touches on their NLCS Game 7 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies and secured their spot in the 2023 World Series, the emotion rippling through baseball was pretty easy to identify: surprise. Shock, even.
The possibility of a Diamondbacks pennant had been growing all month, and in truth, by Tuesday morning it was just about as likely as a coin landing on tails, but as full-fledged reality? Now? Even the people closest to the situation had trouble grasping the velocity of their journey — from 110 losses in 2021 to National League champions in 2023.
“We had just lost our 110th game,” Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said after his team's 4-2 victory in Game 7, trying to calculate how many days it had been since the organization’s nadir as he was doused in beer. “No. I would have never believed that this was capable of happening this fast.”
Mike Hazen, the GM who built this team with bold trades, draft picks and iron-willed patience, made no bones about it. The 2023 Diamondbacks are a surprise, with their back-to-back triumphs over the defending pennant winners in Philadelphia the latest on their list of unlikely conquests.
“I think this is probably a surprise that an 84-win team is taking down the team that they are on the road,” he said, just before an entire bottle of Budweiser flooded down his face.
That internal surprise was, safe to say, dwarfed by the outside world’s shock. On the broadcast, analyst Ron Darling called the D-backs’ run to the World Series “almost impossible to comprehend.” One particularly brash MLB Network personality claimed that he would retire if the Diamondbacks won Game 7. (Wouldn’t hold your breath on that one.)
Yes, the Diamondbacks won 84 games in the regular season. By regular-season winning percentage, they have the third-worst record of any World Series team — outdone by only the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals (who won the World Series) and the 1973 Mets (who did not). These D-backs must be understood within the context of an ever-expanding MLB postseason that opens up more opportunities for the Cinderellas that have existed ever since the advent of the League Championship Series in 1969.
They also must be understood in the context of the here and now, of what they have done this month. They didn’t squeak their way past the Milwaukee Brewers or the Los Angeles Dodgers; they dismantled their NL West tormentors. They didn’t just hit the timing jackpot against the Phillies; they took haymakers in Games 1 and 2, adjusted and stunned a Philadelphia crowd that was verging on a feeling of invincibility.
What we’re all feeling right now? What they’re feeling? Sure, it’s shock, but that’s not the same as pronouncing the Diamondbacks an outlier or a fluke or a one-off. No, powered by a wealth of young players in their early 20s, this is a baseball moment primed to morph in our memories.
The team no one saw coming could soon enough be the team everyone saw arrive.
‘You can’t win without superstars’
Before Game 7, presumptive NL Rookie of the Year Corbin Carroll was showing his Arizona teammates a photo on his phone, one of those memories the device serves up to remind you what you were doing a year ago, two years ago, 10 years ago, etc.
“It was me on my couch in Seattle watching the 2021 NLCS,” he said after the game. “It's a picture of the screen saying that — and then my dog.”
Carroll’s automated memories of this NLCS will be more exciting. After a cold 3-for-23 stretch in the first six games of the series, he took over Game 7. The dynamic, 5-foot-10 outfielder had a hand in all four D-backs runs, driving in two and scoring the others as part of a three-hit, two-steal night. Oh, he also squeezed the final out in right field.
“He’s our best player. We have so many good players, but he’s a superstar,” Hazen said of the 23-year-old Carroll, who signed an eight-year, $111 million contract in spring training. “You can’t win without superstars. You see the superstars on their team. You saw what [Kyle] Schwarber did in the playoffs, and somehow we withstood that. We wouldn’t be where we are without him.”
The consensus No. 1 overall prospect in the game coming into this season after an eye-popping cup of coffee in 2022, Carroll spent the summer establishing himself as the tip of the spear for a contending club. What this playoff run — particularly this NLCS battle with Bryce Harper’s star-studded Phillies — has established is a wider cast of young stars.
Catcher Gabriel Moreno, who has been hitting lasers all over the park while absorbing the duties of a major-league backstop, was the key piece of a daring offseason trade that sent 2022 breakout player Daulton Varsho to the Toronto Blue Jays. On Tuesday, Moreno drove in Carroll for what turned out to be the decisive run in Game 7. Afterward, Lovullo pointed out that Moreno, also 23, had been hitting sixth or seventh in the lineup all year, a customary way to reduce some pressure on a young player, until he moved up to fifth at the beginning of the playoffs.
Now? He bats third and accentuates the mayhem Carroll and veteran second baseman Ketel Marte unleash at the top of the order.
“They're very capable players,” Lovullo said. “And it's nice to see them in the middle of a lot of the traffic. Because of them, today we won a baseball game.”
Brandon Pfaadt, the 25-year-old rookie who also ranked highly on preseason prospect lists, held the Phillies’ lineup in check for the second time this series in Game 7. If you’re looking for the chasm between the summary of a summer (84 wins, or a 5.79 ERA in Pfaadt’s case) and the auspices of autumn baseball, look no further.
The struggles evident from the pitcher’s grisly overall stat line were very real, but they don’t reflect the Pfaadt who, after returning to the minors to hone his craft, took the mound with a better understanding of how to use his stuff, how to attack hitters and where to stand on the rubber to maximize his arsenal.
“Every time he came back to the big leagues, it's like, OK, he learned something else when he was down there. He learned something else. And he started to become a complete pitcher,” said Zac Gallen, the staff ace. “To go out there in Game 7 when your back's against the wall in maybe one of the more hostile environments in baseball — maybe in all of professional sports? — I think speaks to the character of the guy.”
Carroll, Moreno, Pfaadt. They aren’t going anywhere, and they also aren’t the whole story. The D-backs have gotten significant contributions from 23-year-old Alek Thomas and 24-year-old shortstop Geraldo Perdomo. Another highly regarded prospect, 21-year-old shortstop Jordan Lawlar, is on the roster serving in a bench role.
It’s a surprise that they’re the heart of a World Series team now, but would it really be surprising if they became recurring characters on the October stage?
‘Did I think it would happen this fast? No.’
The Diamondbacks, it’s worth noting, did not tank for this critical mass of talent. They did not dip into a full rebuild. Yes, those 110 losses in 2021 were bad, a series of escalating stumbles. The recovery, though, was swift.
By the start of last season, Gallen, now 28 years old and a regular Cy Young vote-getter, was already in place, as was late-blooming starter Merrill Kelly. Marte, the NLCS MVP taking the postseason by storm, was locked in on an extension. Christian Walker had emerged from Paul Goldschmidt’s shadow as a worthy mainstay at first base in his own right.
“It's like, we just need to get some other pieces around us,” Gallen said, recalling the outlook as he soaked in the pennant win. “And it was the infusion of the young guys that helped us out. We've got a great mix of just young guys, old guys. And we walked through some junk to get here. I think there's guys who have been here that have been battle-tested for the last two years, three years. And it's paying off.”
Lovullo, who managed the last Arizona playoff squad in 2017 and endured the lean times that followed, saw the surge coming late last summer as Carroll, Thomas and others settled in the big leagues and began to boost the team’s level of competition.
“As soon as I saw the pieces were starting to come into play last year toward the end of the year, I knew that this was a possibility, that we could turn it around,” Lovullo said. “Did I think it would happen this fast? No.”
— MLB (@MLB) October 25, 2023
Now, though, it has happened. And in our rightful awe over these new faces upending Harper, Schwarber, Aaron Nola and a load of other well-known stars, we have to account for the possibility that this is the beginning of a recurring October show.
Among that group of recent teams that made the World Series with historically low regular-season win percentages? The 2022 Phillies and 2021 Atlanta Braves are in the top (bottom?) 10, just behind the Diamondbacks. Granted, the D-backs have more to prove before we think of them the same way we think of the Phillies, let alone the perennially dominant Braves, but that’s how quickly collections of young talent can vault from underdogs to obvious powers.
“I think you’ve got young guys that are coming up in big spots that, to me, it seems like they're gonna enjoy this, and they're gonna want to do it all the time,” Gallen said.
Lovullo credited the Arizona player development apparatus, a crucial part of every MLB organization today, and pointed out that there’s plenty of highly regarded talent still percolating.
“I know we've got more players that are coming through the system,” he said. “But the ones here have been taught well, they've accepted coaching, and this organization is in very capable hands.”
Baseball history is littered with inevitable-looking dynasties that never make it back to the promised land — hello, 2016 Chicago Cubs — but our faulty radars have margin for error that stretches across the dial. The 84-win Diamondbacks are a thrilling surprise right now. Before you know it, they might be an obvious origin story for an October staple.
“Whether this thing goes the way we want it to or it doesn't, I think you're gonna see a lot of guys who enjoyed playing baseball in October and into November,” Gallen said. “And they're gonna want to do that every year.”