The Diamondbacks and the playoffs seemed about as likely as a cool Arizona day in September.
When the first pitch was thrown on Sunday, it was 80 degrees outside.
The club was coming off of an awful 69-93 season in 2016. They had gone all in – bringing in aces Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller – going into that season. The Snakes were the hot pick as the surprise team in 2016.
Surprise! They finished fourth in the National League West.
The outfield was plagued with injuries with A.J. Pollock and David Peralta out for significant chunks of the season. Chris Owings, a career infielder, spent most of his season learning on the job in the outfield. Greinke sported his worst ERA since 2005. Miller seemed to be lost from the get-go, whether it was scraping his hand on the mound, tinkering with mechanics or having his own trips to the disabled list.
Fast forward to 2017, and the expectations for the Diamondbacks by many was to improve, but not compete.
They had first-year general manager Mike Hazen running things and first-time, aside from a few weeks as an interim manager, skipper in Torey Lovullo. The splashes they made in the winter leading into 2016 were followed with drips the next offseason.
Hazen traded Jean Segura, who led the national league in hitting in 2016, for a talented but raw pitcher in Taijuan Walker and Ketel Marte, a shortstop who struggled with consistency. His other offseason signings included catchers Chris Iannetta and Jeff Mathis, who were known solely for their defense, utility man Daniel Descalso and closer Fernando Rodney, who showed he still had something when pitching for San Diego but might have lost it when he was traded to Miami.
The Diamondbacks were healthy coming into 2017, but it’s not like they could compete with the high and mighty Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants.
But they did.
From a walk-off win on Opening Day to rattling off 53 wins in the first half of the season, the new regime made something “click.”
It wasn’t perfect though.
Shelby Miller started off solid before being at the mercy of Tommy John surgery. Pollock spent some time on the disabled list as well. Both Nick Ahmed and Chris Owings got injured in a matter of weeks.When Fernando Rodney struggled early in the season, he STRUGGLED.
But the Diamondbacks found ways to win games. Archie Bradley, a starter who seemed to always be “a year away” accepted a role in the bullpen rather than going to Triple-A Reno to start. He embraced his role and became one of the league’s best relievers in the league and the vocal leader of the team. Zack Godley was thrust into the fifth starter spot and thrived.
Jake Lamb and Robbie Ray took the next steps in their careers and were named to the All-Star team.
David Peralta has very quietly had one of the best years of his career. It should speak to Paul Goldschmidt’s consistency that I’m this far into a column and have yet to mention him despite MVPaul having arguably the best year of his career.
While the “small splashes” Hazen made in the offseason didn’t turn the needle in December, Iannetta, Rodney, Mathis, Descalso, among others, had the winning moments that Torey Lovullo consistently speaks about and added depth to a talented roster.
Hazen was able to then drop a midseason bomb and acquired J.D. Martinez from the Detroit Tigers to bolster the lineup. With Arizona, he’s hitting .292 with 27 home runs and 57 RBIs and set the record for most home runs in a month with 14.
He has seven more days to add to his total.
They’ve won 90 games this year, and clinched a playoff berth, and home field advantage in the National League Wildcard, on Sunday.
They still have the titans of the NL West in the Dodgers along with the rock solid Washington Nationals to deal with if they want to make some noise in the postseason, and that’s even if they get past the Wildcard round.
But one of the Diamondbacks’ rallying cries this year has been #It’sAVibe, and the vibe right now is playoff baseball, as improbable as that may have seemed this time last year.