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PHILADELPHIA — It is no secret that Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia is one of the most hostile, if not the most hostile, playoff environments in baseball.
“If you’re scared,” Diamondbacks ace Zac Gallen said, “stay home.”
It was the same refrain Gallen used after the Diamondbacks swept the Milwaukee Brewers in the Wild Card Series and were staring down a five-game series with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS. They swept that series, too.
Now, the Diamondbacks are one of only four teams remaining in the battle for MLB supremacy in 2023.
Nonetheless, after the Diamondbacks won just 84 games in the regular season and barely found their way into the playoffs via the third wild card spot, some have questioned whether they belong in the playoffs at all.
“We’re keeping receipts,” Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo says, referencing Colorado football coach Deion “Coach Prime” Sanders. “We’ve got a long list of receipts right now.”
Say what you will of the 2023 Diamondbacks. Maybe they don’t deserve to be here. But, whether they do or do not, they are, in fact, here, and they have not lost a playoff game yet, outscoring their opponents 30-11 in the process.
In fact, if you’re a baseball fan looking for a team to claim for the final two weeks, the underdog Diamondbacks are a compelling a choice. Here are five reasons why.
1. A Cinderella Story
Just two years ago, the Diamondbacks lost 110 games — and general manager Mike Hazen wants to make sure you know: They were not trying to lose at all.
“The biggest misinformation around that,” Hazen told reporters on Sunday, “we weren’t tanking that season. We weren’t trying to lose. We were trying to win. I felt we put a team out there that had a chance to compete.”
Due to a combination of underperformance and an enormous swath of injuries, the Diamondbacks ended the year tied with the Baltimore Orioles for the worst record in the sport. Now, the Diamondbacks are in the NLCS. (And, oddy enough, the Orioles made it to the ALDS after winning 100 games in the regular season.)
The Diamondbacks, of course, did not win 100 games. They won 84, including losing their final four games of the year in a row. They had a minus-15 run differential in the regular season, becoming the first team with a negative run differential to make the playoffs since, coincidentally, the Diamondbacks also did it in 2007.
Since the postseason began, the Diamondbacks have somehow flipped a switch. Playing a 91-win Brewers team and a 100-win Dodgers team, they have averaged six runs per game. They have only given up more than two runs once, and, in that game, they gave up three.
If you love a comeback story, you will love the Diamondbacks. And, if you love an underdog story, you will also love the Diamondbacks.
2. Wreaking havoc on the bases
It is often said that chicks dig the long ball, but, perhaps, they dig the stolen base, too?
Major League Baseball officials certainly thought so when they instituted rule changes over the offseason that were specifically geared at bolstering the run game across the sport. Based on survey data, MLB discovered that fans like action on the bases.
Anyone with an affinity for action on the bases will likely enjoy Diamondbacks baseball because, well, they have Corbin Carroll. In his rookie season, Carroll was arguably the best baserunner in the sport. He went 54-for-59 in stolen base attempts in the regular season, which works out to a sparkling 91.5 percent success rate.
Based on FanGraphs’ all-encompassing baserunning metric, BsR, Carroll not only led the league in baserunning value in 2023 by a wide margin, but he posted the second-most valuable baserunning season of all time, trailing only Hugh Nicol of the Cincinnati Reds in 1887.
As outlined in my NLCS preview, the Diamondbacks are one of the best baserunning teams in the league. In addition to Carroll, they have Tommy Pham, who went 22-for-25 in stolen base attempts during the regular season, as well as Geraldo Perdomo and Christian Walker, both of whom had double-digit steals in the regular season.
Alek Thomas attempted only 10 stolen bases during the year, but he was successful in nine of them and has elite foot speed. Gabriel Moreno has good wheels for a catcher; he notched six stolen bases in the regular season.
Of course, the brains behind the Diamondbacks’ running operations is first base coach Dave McKay, who is widely regarded as one of the best in the game in that regard.
So far in the playoffs, the Diamondbacks have had little need to rely on their speed. After all, they have averaged nearly three home runs per game so far in the playoffs. Nonetheless, it seems likely that they will have to lean more on that speed through the remainder of the playoffs.
“If the offensive power output doesn’t continue at the rate it is,” general manager Mike Hazen told reporters on Sunday, “we’re going to still need to be able to do the things that we’ve done well during the course of the season, which is get on base and run and create problems on the bases.”
3. A Youth Movement
Unike the Phillies, whose success is largely the result of expensive free-agent signings such as Bryce Harper, Trea Turner, J.T. Realmuto and Zack Wheeler, the Diamondbacks’ success this year has come in no small part because of players who have never reached MLB free agency.
Based on OPS, the D-backs’ two best hitters in the playoffs are Carroll and Moreno, both of whom are 23 years old and playing their first full MLB seasons. Carroll has a 1.389 OPS so far in the playoffs and Moreno has an 1.107 OPS.
The D-backs also have two other 23-year-olds in their lineup in center fielder Alek Thomas and shortstop Geraldo Perdomo. An excellent defender, Thomas has hit a pair of homers in the playoffs so far and has a respectable .812 OPS. Perdomo hit a critical home run in Game 3 of the NLDS against the Dodgers, giving the Diamondbacks a lead that they never lost.
Yes, postseason experience matters — something this Diamondbacks roster does not have much of — but, for veteran third baseman Evan Longoria, it is not the end-all, be-all.
“Youth and and talent sometimes can override that,” Longoria said. “These guys are playing like their hair’s on fire, just kind of just enjoying the moment.”
If you enjoy rooting for the kids, you will enjoy rooting for the Diamondbacks.
4. A bullpen defined by overcoming the odds
As detailed in my NLCS preview story, the Phillies have an excellent bullpen, perhaps the best of any remaining postseason team.
Most of their high-leverage relievers, such as Craig Kimbrel, Gregory Soto, José Alvarado and Matt Strahm, were acquired via trade or via free agency as already well-established the players.
After five months of subpar production, the Diamondbacks’ bullpen had an exceptional September and has a 1.77 ERA so far in the playoffs. Even more remarkable than their performance is the path many of them took to get to this point.
Almost every high-leverage Diamondbacks reliever was originally acquired as a relatively low draft pick or a minor league free agent who was designated for assignment by his previous team.
Consider lefty Joe Mantiply, for example, who has yet to give up a hit in 2 2/3 innings in the postseason. After being designated for assignment by the New York Yankees in 2019 at the age of 28, Mantiply agreed to a minor league contract with the Diamondbacks in 2020.
After a solid showing with the team in 2021, Mantiply had a remarkable first half in 2022 and found his way to the All-Star game. Now, he is playing a key role for the D-backs in the playoffs.
Andrew Saalfrank was selected in the sixth round in 2019. Saalfrank made his major league debut on Sep. 5 and has emerged as the team’s lefty of choice in high-leverage situations. Including the playoffs, Saalfrank still has not given up an earned run in the majors in 11 2/3 innings.
Like Saalfrank, Ryan Thompson was a late-season addition who pitched in minor-league games little more than a month ago. Designated for assignment by the Rays in mid-August, Thompson agreed to a minor league deal with the D-backs shortly thereafter. He found his way to the majors on Aug. 27, and has posted a 1.50 ERA so far in 18 innings split between the regular season and postseason.
Kevin Ginkel, the Diamondbacks’ eighth-inning man, was selected in the 22nd round back in 2016. Ginkel has flashed dominance occasionally over the past several years in the majors, but even he spent two weeks in the minors in mid-June of this year.
When all was said and done, Ginkel posted a 2.48 ERA in the regular season and he has yet to allow a run in the playoffs in 4 1/3 innings.
Even Paul Sewald, the Diamondbacks’ closer who was acquired from the Seattle Mariners at the trade deadline, nearly hung up his career three years ago while pitching for the New York Mets.
Sewald turned his career around in Seattle, and has been a crucial stabilizing presence for the Diamondbacks down the stretch. Sewald is a perfect 4-for-4 in save opportunities so far in the playoffs.
5. Evan Longoria farewell tour?
Diamondbacks third baseman Evan Longoria last played in a Championship Series game during the Great Recession.
The year was 2008, and Longoria, a rookie, had put together quite a season. He hit .272/.343/.531 in the regular season, and went on to win the NL Rookie of the Year Award.
His team, the Tampa Bay Rays, beat the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS, in no small part because of Longoria’s contributions, and advanced to the World Series to face — poetically — the Philadelphia Phillies.
The Rays lost the series, four games to one.
“Thankfully, I don’t remember a whole lot about the ’08 World Series other than we lost,” Longoria said. “We didn’t play good baseball, and the weather was crappy.”
Now, at age 38, Longoria is back at Citizens Bank Park, playing in the Championship Series once again. He has a chance to redeem what happened in 2008 — in a season that could be his last.
When asked whether he plans to retire after this season last week in Los Angeles, Longoria said that he had not yet made a decision.
“I can’t say yes or no,” Longoria said. “If you’re putting me to it, I’d probably say I’d love to play another year. But again, it’s going to be opportunity, the right opportunity.
“This year has proven to me that, with the right setting, I can still play pretty effectively. If I get that opportunity again, we’ll go through some paces with my wife and my family and figure out what’s best.”
In 74 games this year, Longoria slashed .223/.295/.422, although he faded a bit down the stretch, slashing only .177/.271/.177 after returing from a back injury in August.
Longoria is not the player he once was, but he has started every playoff game so far for the Diamondbacks, including a dazzling defensive showing that powered the team to a Game 1 win over the Milwaukee Brewers in the Wild Card Series.
Even if Longoria returns for another year, whether to the Diamondbacks or otherwise, this could be the last time he plays this late in the postseason.
If he does it hang it up, he would be one of just 16 third basemen all-time to post 55 career bWAR or more. This NLCS stage is the perfect opportunity to appreciate what he has meant to the sport over the past decade-plus.
Top photo: Rob Schumacher/The Republic
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