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Growing up in Phoenix
Diamondbacks have gone from rattle to big bite in no time
Posted: Monday September 06, 1999 11:14 AM
By John Donovan, CNN/SI
ATLANTA -- Sometime around early or mid July, right about the time that the temperatures in Phoenix make their day-in, day-out trip into triple digits, the Arizona Diamondbacks came of age.
This purple-and teal-clad squad, the one that plays in the airplane hangar with a pool, suddenly has gone from equal of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to equal of just about the best in the game.
And the Diamondbacks may not be done yet. Barring a big-time collapse during the September stretch run, the Diamondbacks -- in only their second year in the majors -- will win the National League West, becoming the youngest expansion team to make the playoffs.
It's an amazing rise, and one that team officials admit may not have come off just as they planned it. But, after a busy offseason spent retooling the young club into a veteran team, this season isn't far from what was expected.
"We looked at the club we had coming into the year ... and we said, 'We could have a good year,'" said Arizona general manager Joe Garagiola Jr., who spent much of the offseason wooing seven free agents to Phoenix. "All we basically said [to the players] was 'Do what you do.'"
Even the pathologically upbeat and down-to-the-details Garagiola could not have imagined exactly what he's getting out of his team this year.
Left-hander Randy Johnson, the team's biggest big-ticket free agent, has been everything the team wanted. And he'd have easily more than his 14 wins if not for a five-game stretch in late June in which he allowed two earned runs once, gave up just one earned run three other times and didn't allow any runs the other time -- and still went 0-4 with a no-decision. Johnson, who already has 328 strikeouts this season, saw his ERA drop from 3.36 to 2.80 in that winless stretch.
For sure, money's a big reason for Arizona's success. The Diamondbacks started the season with the seventh-highest payroll in baseball, somewhere around $66 million. But, unlike the Orioles and Dodgers, they're earning their keep.
Best team that money can buy?
Garagiola readily admits that the team's big payroll, made possible by the revenue-spewing Bank One Ballpark, has helped. But he'll also list the several young players, like rookie first baseman Erubiel Durazo (hitting .297), who are homegrown. And he'll point out that many of the trades the team made for veterans were made possible because the Diamondbacks were willing to part with some young farm talent -- talent both they and other clubs found good enough to include in a trade.
"It's a facile statement to make," Garagiola said of the buying-a-pennant argument. "But I think it's a simplified analysis."
Garagiola's shrewdest move may have come on July 9, when he traded a pair of promising pitching prospects to the Florida Marlins for closer Matt Mantei. The Diamondbacks' bullpen was a mess before Mantei arrived, blowing 14 of its first 30 save attempts. The 26-year-old Mantei has saved 17 of the 20 Arizona games he's been in and has been scored upon only twice in his last 20 appearances.
"This was not a case of us mortgaging our future," Garagiola said. "He is the future."
Last year, the Diamondbacks got off to an awful start (8-31) and limped home with a 65-97 record. They decided to change philosophies and pounded the free-agent market -- their signings included Johnson, Womack, center fielder Steve Finley and pitcher Todd Stottlemyre. Yet many still predicted a weak pitching rotation would be their downfall.
The Diamondbacks got off to a slow start again this year and were only four games over on July 19. But Arizona won 10 of 11 to end July, eventually got to 13 games over .500 and hasn't been out of first place since a win over the Dodgers on July 24.
"When I signed here, the expectations were to compete three or four years down the road, after some of the expansion draft [players] came up," Bell said. "I think it's happened a little quicker than I expected."
There are some concerns, though. The rotation, after Johnson, has been shaky. Veteran Andy Benes (10-11, with a 4.95 ERA) has been inconsistent. Omar Daal has pitched a personal-high 185 innings, and there's some concern he won't be able to shoulder that kind of load down the stretch.
Arizona, critics point out, has fattened up on the weaklings of the National League, going 19-3 against the Phillies, Padres, Pirates and Marlins. And even though the Diamondbacks just took two out of three against the Braves in Atlanta -- even though they have a largely veteran team -- many wonder how Arizona will do down the September stretch.
"This is a strong mental ballclub," Gonzalez said. "But it's a short season from now on."
The Diamondbacks realize that more than anyone.
"There is a sense of urgency," said manager Buck Showalter, who admits to watching the scoreboard to see how Arizona's rivals are doing. "But it's been like that all year. It's fun. We're at a place where no one expected us to be."
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