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ARLINGTON, Texas — Throughout the Diamondbacks’ run to the World Series, a belittling national narrative has followed them at every stop: the idea that they, an 84-win, third-wild-card team, do not belong.
Diamondbacks first base coach Dave McKay, who played a role on the 83-win St. Louis Cardinals team that won the World Series in 2006, has seen firsthand what it takes to hang a banner in the presence of such naysayers.
In hitters meetings throughout this postseason run, McKay has made it clear where he stands on this notion that the D-backs do not belong.
“Screw that,” McKay says. “What do you mean, ‘We’re not supposed to be here?’ We are supposed to be here. We’re here for a reason.”
Diamondbacks first baseman Christian Walker spoke highly during World Series media day of McKay’s leadership and his ability to relay such messages from a place of experience.
Walker said that McKay has helped the team not only play through pressure, but embrace it, even crave it.
Throughout this postseason run, the stage has not seemed too big for the oft-doubted Diamondbacks. Now, they are in the World Series.
As the Fall Classic begins at Globe Life Field on Friday night, here are five storylines to keep an eye on.
1. Can Zac Gallen rebound?
The Diamondbacks impressively beat the Philadelphia Phillies in the NLCS, but they did it more in spite of ace Zac Gallen’s performance than because of it.
In two starts, Gallen gave up total of nine runs on 14 hits with four walks and five strikeouts in 11 innings. The Diamondbacks lost both of his starts.
In the more recent of those two outings, Gallen struck out only one batter. It was the first outing of his major league career in which he had fewer than two strikeouts.
“Just lack of execution, really,” Gallen said of his starts against the Phillies. “No secret, I feel like I didn’t help the guys that much. So I’m looking to try and pull my weight this time around.”
For as good as that Phillies lineup was, this Texas Rangers lineup is arguably better.
In the regular season, the Rangers ranked third in the majors with a .789 team OPS. They also ranked third with 881 runs scored — 85 more than the Phillies.
Based on weighted runs created plus (wRC+), eight of the Rangers’ nine starting position players in Game 1 were above-average offensively in the regular season (100 is league average): Evan Carter (180 wRC+), Corey Seager (169), Mitch Garver (138), Marcus Semien (124), Adolis Gacía (124), Nathaniel Lowe (114), Josh Jung (110) and Jonah Heim (103).
Their only Game 1 starter who was below-average offensively in the regular season was Leody Taveras. Even he still hit a respectable .266/.312/.421 while playing good defense in center field.
All this is to say: Gallen has his work cut out for him.
When asked about Gallen’s struggles, Diamondbacks pitching coach Brent Strom suggested that Gallen’s workload — 232 innings combined between the regular season and postseason — could be a factor, among other things.
“When you’re tired, I think you can conjure up velocity,” Strom said. “It’s the control factor and the command factor.
“His command hasn’t been where it should be. And, quite frankly, there are some sequencing issues that we’re talking about where one pitch precedes another and followed by another, that kind of thing. Talking about different speeds, different locations.”
Gallen faced the Rangers twice in the regular season, first on the road at Globe Life Field in early May and then at home at Chase Field in late August.
In the former, Gallen gave up three runs in five innings with six strikeouts. In the latter, he was dominant, allowing just one run over six innings with 11 strikeouts.
While the Diamondbacks still managed to beat the Phillies in spite of Gallen’s struggles, it seems unlikely that they will be able to replicate that against the Rangers.
Gallen will be opposed by the Rangers’ Nathan Eovaldi in Game 1, and, presumably, in Game 5, should the series to make it there.
Eovaldi has been spectacular for the Rangers in the postseason. In four starts, he is 4-0 with a 2.42 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 28 strikeouts compared to just four walks in 26 innings.
2. Can Diamondbacks’ veteran bats contribute?
Diamondbacks veteran second baseman Ketel Marte has been outstanding in the playoffs. He is slashing .358/.382/.604. He has had a hit in every game. He was the NLCS MVP for a reason.
But, outside of him, the vast majority of the Diamondbacks’ offensive in the postseason has come from their youngsters, specifically Corbin Carroll, Gabriel Moreno, Alek Thomas and Geraldo Perdomo. All four are 24 or younger.
The rest of the Diamondbacks’ offense consists of veteran outfielders Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Tommy Pham, first baseman Christian Walker and third baseman Evan Longoria. All have struggled in the postseason to varying degrees.
Gurriel has hit a pair of powers, but he has just a .265 on-base percentage. Walker has reached a base plenty with a .365 OBP, but he has not impacted the ball much, hitting just .179 with a .333 slugging percentage. Pham has a .590 OPS in the playoffs, Longoria an abysmal .403.
With how deep this Rangers’ lineup is, the Diamondbacks will struggle to win the series if they don’t get more production from some of those veterans.
Walker, in particular, stands out as an important player. As the team’s No. 4 hitter, he went just 2-for-22 with a double in the NLCS. Getting him back to the hitter he was in the regular season — a guy who hit 33 homers with an .830 OPS — would go a long way for the D-backs.
3. Game 3: A 39-year-old legend against a 25-year-old rookie
Four months ago, it would have been insane to suggest that a Max Scherzer-Brandon Pfaadt pitching matchup leaned in the Diamondbacks’ favor. And, yet, that is the perception heading into the World Series, which will likely feature those two starting pitchers — a 39-year-old, future Hall-of-Famer and a 25-year-old rookie — facing each other in Game 3.
Scherzer hit the injured list in mid-September with a shoulder injury that was initially expected to end his season. Nonetheless, Scherzer managed to rejoin the Rangers in the ALCS, starting a pair of games against the Houston Astros.
His two starts there were not particularly good, however. In 6 2/3 total innings, Scherzer gave up seven runs on nine hits, including two homers. Of course, the fact that Scherzer managed to return this season at all is impressive. Those two ALCS starts were effectively rehab outings. Perhaps he has knocked off the rust, and will be better in the World Series.
Pfaadt, meanwhile, has been excellent in the postseason. In his past three starts, he has allowed only two runs in 14 innings, punching out 18 compared to just two walks in those games.
The Diamondbacks’ rookie starter actually made his major league debut against the Rangers back on May 3. He gave up seven runs in 4 2/3 innings. Of course, he is unquestionably a better pitcher now than he was then.
Based on recent performance, the Diamondbacks appear to have the advantage in a Scherzer-Pfaadt duel. It is the only pitching matchup of the series, in fact, that appears to clearly favor one side over the year. How that it plays out figures to be an important factor in the series.
4. Can the Diamondbacks’ bullpen advantage prove significant?
If the Diamondbacks have any one clear advantage in this series, it appears to be their bullpen.
Much like the Pfaadt-Scherzer situation, it would have been outrageous a few months ago to even entertain the thought of the D-backs’ bullpen being an asset in the World Series. But here we are.
The Diamondbacks’ three-headed monster of Ryan Thompson, Kevin Ginkel and closer Paul Sewald has posted a 0.98 ERA this postseason. They have combined for 32 strikeouts compared to just six walks in 27 2/3 innings of work. The latter two have yet to allow a run.
The Rangers, meanwhile, have primarily relied on Josh Sborz, Aroldis Chapman and closer Jose Leclerc at the back end. While those three relievers have a solid 2.49 ERA combined — and are undoubtedly a big part of how the Rangers got here — they have issued 14 walks compared to 21 strikeouts in 25 1/3 innings. Both of those marks are poor.
As a whole, the Rangers’ bullpen has struck out just 6.9 batters per nine innings this postseason, the lowest rate among all of this year’s playoff teams. Diamondbacks relievers, meanwhile, have punched out 8.6 per nine in the postseason.
Arizona’s offense, on paper, does not measure up to that of Texas, but the back end of their bullpen appears to be better, perhaps significantly so. If the Diamondbacks win the series, their bullpen will probably have played a big role in getting them there.
5. Torey Lovullo, BRuce Bochy meet again
When Bruce Bochy stepped away from his role as manager of the San Francisco Giants four years ago, Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo presented him a gift at home plate.
“It’s been an absolute honor to manage against you,” Lovullo told Bochy. “I hope you find your way back to doing this one day.”
“If I do,” Bochy replied, “it will be an honor to be managing against you as well.”
Now, in this unprecedented 2023 World Series matchup, the two managers meet once again. “I was just honored to be in his presence,” Lovullo recalls, “and I will be for these next nine days.”
It is no secret that Bochy has an impressive track record in the postseason. He has a 53-36 career record in the playoffs, including a 45-20 mark since the Giants’ postseason run in 2010.
Bochy has built a reputation for having elite instincts in October, and it has certainly played out that way this year. Lovullo, meanwhile, has seemingly pressed all the right buttons all postseason long, leading the Diamondbacks to a 9-3 record — the exact same record as Bochy’s Rangers up to this point.
Managerial decisions are difficult to evaluate in short series, but there is no question that virtually every move Lovullo and Bochy make will be scutinized in the coming days. The players on the field ultimately will determine the outcome of this series, but the managerial chess match is an important storyline to follow, too.
“After a game,” Lovullo said, “when I’m done managing my team against his team, I’m exhausted. You just can’t miss anything. He is all over everything that you’re trying to do on a moment-to-moment basis. It can be a big challenge.”
Bochy returned Lovullo’s compliments in Thursday’s media day presser.
“He’s on top of everything,” Bochy said of Lovullo. “He knows the game. It’s not a situation where he’s — even when he first started managing, that you didn’t think he was ready. He’s done a great job for them.
“You look where they’ve come, similar to us. Torey’s footprint is on the club the way they play the game. They hustle, they’re aggressive on the bases, they do the little things. And that’s Torey, I think, leading the way there.
“I have so much respect for him, too.”
Top photo: Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports
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