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ARLINGTON, Texas — If I had a dime for every question reporters have asked Diamondbacks coaches, players and front office executives about the team’s resurgent bullpen throughout his postseason run, I would be a wealthy man.
It turns out, it is not every day that a team’s biggest weakness — the primary thing holding them back from being a legitimate playoff contender — turns into arguably their biggest strength seemingly overnight and helps them reach the World Series.
And, yet, that is what happened to these 2023 Diamondbacks.
As of Sep. 1, the Diamondbacks ranked 23rd in the majors with a 4.68 bullpen ERA. For the majority of the year, they lacked reliable back end options, including, most notably, a closer. They cycled through various options in the ninth inning in the first half of the season. Andrew Chafin, Miguel Castro, Scott McGough all took their turns. None of them had consistent success.
At the trade deadline, general manager Mike Hazen bet on his team and acquired closer Paul Sewald from the Seattle Mariners.
Several weeks later, Hazen signed Ryan Thompson, who had just been designated for assignment by the Tampa Bay Rays, to a minor league deal. Thompson found his way to the majors eight days later.
Sewald and Thompson, alongside Kevin Ginkel, have formed one of the most dominant high-leverage bullpen trios in the sport over the past two months, and, specifically, in the playoffs.
Entering the World Series, those three had combined for a 0.98 ERA with six walks and 32 strikeouts in 27 1/3 innings. Sewald, in particular, had yet to allow a run in eight innings of work. He had converted all six of his save opportunities. But, on Friday, he gave up his first runs of the postseason.
Unfortunately for him, they came in the form of a ninth-inning, game-tying, two-run home run by Texas Rangers shortstop Corey Seager that erased a 5-3 Diamondbacks advantage in Game 1 of the World Series.
The Diamondbacks went on to lose in 11 innings by a final score of 6-5.
In a series in which the Diamondbacks’ bullpen figured to be one of their biggest advantages over the Rangers, it was the Rangers’ bullpen that looked significantly better on Friday.
To be fair, D-backs relievers allowed only three runs in 5 1/3 innings. That is a non-ideal, but perfectly reasonable night of performance. Even so, it was still not up to the standard that the Diamondbacks have delivered time and time again this postseason.
“What happened today,” outfielder Alek Thomas said, “it’s just baseball. It happens. [We] can’t expect everybody to be perfect. And [Sewald]’s been great. Our bullpen’s been great. It’s just a part of baseball.”
Entering Friday, the Diamondbacks had gotten a lead in nine postseason games, and they had won all nine of them. Up to this point in the playoffs, getting a lead has been synonymous with the game being over.
Game 1 was something of a reality check.
“The shock factor was very high,” manager Torey Lovullo said, “but I sat back down and reminded myself, this is the World Series for a reason. The best players are here on the stage and the best players do big-time things.”
In the ninth inning, Seager was that player. With his game-tying homer and a pair of walks in the game, he is now slashing .327/.484/.673 in the postseason.
Seager had a simliar degree of success in the regular season, hitting .327/.390/.623 in 119 games. He is likely to be the AL MVP runner-up, trailing only Los Angeles Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani.
Seager’s homer came on an elevated, first-pitch fastball from Sewald. Given how well Sewald’s heater typically plays up in the zone, it was not a terrible pitch.
Of course, the Diamondbacks might have been able to win the game in nine innings had Sewald not walked No. 9 hitter Leody Taveras to start the frame. That walk turned what might have been a solo homer into a game-tying, two-run dinger instead.
“It’s such a potent offense,” Sewald said after the game. “You have to try to get the bottom of the lineup before the top comes up. That’s what I’ll be most frustrated with is walking Taveras. Seager is one of the 10 best players in this league, and you’ve just got to try and face him with nobody on.”
For as great as Seager has been this postseason, he is still not the hottest hitter on this Texas Rangers right now. That honor belongs to Adolis García, who sent 42,000-plus Rangers fans at Globe Life Field home happy with a walk-off homer on a 3-1 sinker from Miguel Castro in the 11th inning.
It was García’s fifth straight game with a homer. It was also his 22nd RBI of the postseason, the most by any player in a single postseason in major league history.
While it was Seager and García who ultimately turned the game around for the Rangers, Diamondbacks pitchers struggled to throw clean innings all night long.
While the Rangers pitching staff issued only one walk compared to 14 strikeouts in the game, D-backs pitchers issued 10 walks and struck out 10.
Arizona’s bullpen, in particular, allowed five hits, six walks and a hit batter in 5 1/3 innings of work. The Rangers had traffic all over the place all night.
“You can’t walk 10 batters in a World Series game and expect to hold them in the situation that we held them in,” Lovullo said. “It was a matter of time before something happened, and it did.”
On the flip side, the Diamondbacks’ offense did very little in the later innings, tallying only one hit after the sixth inning. Rangers relievers retired 17 of the last 18 hitters they faced.
For the Diamondbacks, it was a disappointing finish to a game that had been going quite well in the middle innings. After scoring three in the third inning and tacking on one more in the fourth and fifth, the Diamondbacks impressively chased Rangers starters Nathan Eovaldi from the game after just 4 2/3 innings. It was only the second time in Eovaldi’s impressive postseason career in which he has given up four or more runs in a start.
Two of those runs came on a two-run triple by Corbin Carroll in the third inning — the first triple in Diamondbacks World Series history. Carroll scored on a Ketel Marte fielder’s choice grounder moments later.
In the fourth inning, Tommy Pham tacked on another run with a homer. In the fifth, Ketel Marte hit an RBI double to right-center field fence, scoring Geraldo Perdomo.
The Diamondbacks did a lot of things right on Friday, but, ultimately, a bullpen that has seeemed invincible with a late lead finally broke at the hands of two extremely hot hitters.
Entering the series, it appeared that the Diamondbacks’ relief corps was better on paper, perhaps significantly so. After Eovaldi left in the fifth, however, the Rangers’ bullpen was excellent, piecing together 6 1/3 scoreless innings with no walks and six strikeouts.
Jonathan Gray and Jose LeClerc, in particular, stepped up for the Rangers. Gray got five outs on four strikeouts without allowing a run. LeClerc pitched both the 10th and 11th, retiring all six batters he faced. The efforts of those Rangers relievers allowed Texas manager Bruce Bochy to save a pair of key back end arms in Josh Sborz and Aroldis Chapman for tomorrow.
The Diamondbacks, meanwhile, used all of three of their best relievers — Thompson, Ginkel, Sewald — and none of the three looked especially sharp. While Thompson and Ginkel both managed to put up zeros, they each allowed a pair of baserunners, and the latter needed 28 pitches to get out of the eighth inning.
Still, while basically none of the Diamondbacks’ relievers looked sharp in the game, it was Sewald who gave up that game-tying two-run homer that will be replayed in Rangers circles for years to come.
He will be looking to block that out of his mind as soon as possible.
“Being a relief pitcher,” Sewald said, “I never have time to dwell on it.
“Not the first blown save, probably won’t be the last. Just gotta try and get back tomorrow. And I hope more than anything that these guys give me a lead, and I get the exact same chance.
“Hopefully, I pitch a little bit better, and we walk out of here with a win.”
Top photo: Joe Rondone/The Republic
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