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NLDS: Destiny's Child?
Is Arizona, and not Colorado, the true "Team of Destiny" in this postseason?
It sure felt that way in Saturday evening's NLDS clincher. From the game's very first pitch -- which D-Backs leadoff man Chris Young smacked into the left-field bleachers -- the Diamondbacks appeared to have a charmed air about them. It was there when Eric Byrnes somehow beat out a routine double-play ball, allowing a run to score. It was there when Stephen Drew hit a homer onto Sheffield Avenue one pitch after being hit in the leg (umps didn't catch that one). And it was most definitely there every time Livan Hernandez killed a Cubs rally by inducing a double-play.
Arizona was invincible throughout the three-game series. Every time a pitcher got into a tight jam, he quickly got out of it. Every time a batter needed a big hit, he came through. During the opening round, Arizona players simply did everything that needed to be done to win. And this has been the story all season long.
In recent conversations with friends and colleagues, I've been presented with a common question: "How are the Diamondbacks winning like this?" This is an understandable query. Arizona has anything but a star-studded lineup. From an outsider's perspective, this team looks like a .500 team. But the D-backs just seem to possess that inexplicable "it" -- or what some would describe as unusual luck. During the regular season, Arizona was the first team to possess its league's best record (90-72) and worst batting average (.250) since the 1906 White Sox. This rag-tag group of underappreciated veterans and inexperienced, if highly promising, youngsters has that special something that can't be defeated, it would appear.
There’s only one problem with this theory. The ballclub Arizona will face in the NLCS -- Colorado -- has taken this whole Team of Destiny thing to a new level. The Rockies, who one of the greatest September runs in baseball history just to get into the playoffs, have won 17 of their last 18 games.
This sets up for an extremely interesting NLCS. Nobody in America could have predicted that these two NL West ballclubs would be the last teams standing in the NL. Colorado owns a slight edge (10-8) in the season series, but the D-backs possess home-field advantage.
Which one is the true Team of Destiny? That a question will come up more than a few times in the next four days.
NLDS: D'backs swagger, Cubs stagger
Well, this series now has a signature moment.
With runners at second and third in the second inning, Cubs starter Ted Lilly had a 3-2 count on Diamondbacks rookie Chris Young and a 2-0 lead in the ballgame. Even though he had an open base, Lilly chose to challenge Young and made a grave mistake. Chicago's No. 2 pitcher left a 92 mph fastball over the plate, chest high, and Young made him pay, blasting a 421-foot shot into the left-field seats.
Not only did this homer give Arizona a lead it would never relinquish, but it also captured the two contrasting demeanors featured in this series.
Immediately after making contact, Young did his best Sammy Sosa swagger step, before starting into a glorious trot around the bases. As the Chase Field crowd roared with approval and the D-backs dugout exploded with excitement, the 24-year-old Young took in his first huge moment on the grand stage.
"You feel like you're floating on air when you're running around the bases," Young said. "There's no feeling like it."
This is a feeling shared by every Diamondback; the entire Arizona roster is "floating on air." Even though this team posted the most wins (90) in the National League during the regular season, it entered this series as the definite underdog. They're too young. Their offense is laughable. The Cubs have too much firepower. Naysayers had a field day picking apart the Diamondbacks before the series began. All this doubt created a nothing-to-lose scenario for Arizona. The Baby 'Backs are playing with a carefree, youthful exuberance and now they're one win away from the NLCS. Arizona's happy-go-lucky attitude is a stark contrast to Chicago's mindset.
With a healthy dose of experience and star power, the Cubs came into this postseason as a popular pick to win the pennant. Many folks believed this well-rounded group had the potential to overcome 98 years of letdowns and break the North Side's World title drought. But the beloved Cubbies are on the verge of yet another choke job. And the feeling of impending doom was on full display when Lilly gave up the three-run homer. As Young's majestic shot sailed over the fence, Lilly violently chucked his glove to the mound. Even Lou Piniella admitted Lilly's actions were pretty jarring: "I've never seen a pitcher throw the glove like that on the mound." But these are the types of emotional outbursts that accompany almost a century of disappointment. While the inexperienced Diamondbacks have nothing to lose, Chicago has everything to lose. And the Cubs seem to be playing with this in mind.
Barring an unprecedented comeback -- no National League team has ever overcome a 2-0 deficit in the divisional round —Young's homer will probably be remembered as the definitive play in this series. And Lilly's glove chuck will fit nicely next to Bartman in the next highlight (or lowlight) reel of Cubs' blunders.
NLDS: Snakes Alive
On paper, the Cubs seem like heavy favorites in this series. But the Diamondbacks took the opening game by employing a simple recipe that has brought them success all season long...
Start with a healthy dose of Brandon Webb. Arizona got exactly what it needed from the reigning NL Cy Young winner (and most likely the 2007 runner-up). In his first postseason start, Webb overwhelmed the North Siders with dizzying array of sinkers, curveballs and changeups. The 28-year-old completely baffled the meat of the order, as Chicago's 1-5 hitters combined to go 1-for-24 with eight strikeouts (sound a little familiar, Phils fans?). Webb actually allowed a fair number of baserunners, but the eternally-composed hurler calmly worked through every jam. The Cubs set a club record with 45 homers in September, but they continually beat Webb's nose-diving sinker into the ground...when they made contact at all.
Sprinkle in some Baby 'Backs offense. Entering the postseason, Arizona's offense was a subject of great ridicule; many folks deemed it to be the most underwhelming playoff lineup in recent memory. But as they've done all year long, the Diamondbacks scraped out just enough offensive production (three runs on six hits) to win. As usual, youth played a huge part; Arizona's three RBIs came from two 24-year-olds (Stephen Drew and Mark Reynolds) and a 25-year-old (Conor Jackson).
Add a touch of Brandon Lyon. Lyon may be the most underappreciated player on this team. Arizona's trusty setup man led the majors with 35 holds during the regular season. Wednesday night, Lyon earned the first postseason hold of his career by pitching a perfect eighth inning.
And top it off with some spicy Valverde. As usual, Papa Grande wore his emotions on his sleeve Wednesday night. And as usual, the fiery closer put the finishing touches on a D-backs' win. (Valverde led the bigs with 47 saves in the regular season.) Not even that light-flashing lunatic behind home plate could distract the hulking 28-year-old hurler.
This was the Diamondbacks in a nutshell. As Jackson told the East Valley Tribune, "This is how we roll."
NLDS: Diamondbacks vs. Cubs, Game 1
With the supposed dominance of the American League this season and all the buzz surrounding the late-charging Rockies and Phillies, the Arizona-Chicago series seems to be the least-hyped of the bunch. So here's a quick, easy-to-digest primer.
Three things to know about the D-Backs:
1. They shouldn't really be here. On the season Arizona actually allowed 20 more runs than it scored, making it the only playoff team with a negative run differential. (Seattle was the only other team in the majors with a negative run differential that even managed a winning record.) The D-Backs were able to make up for this discrepancy with an MLB-best 32-20 record in one-run games. Simply put, Bob Melvin's been making all the right decisions all year long. Which explains how Arizona overcame another disadvantage ...
2. The Diamondbacks' new colors may officially be Sedona red, Sonoran sand and black, but this team is awfully green. This roster is chock-full of youth. When the series opens tonight the Diamondbacks will start five players under 27 years old (Stephen Drew, Mark Reynolds, Jeff Salazar, Chris Snyder and Chris Young), and that doesn't even include 20-year-old Justin Upton and 25-year-old Conor Jackson, both of whom will start against left-handed pitching.
3. Brandon Webb actually pitched better this year than during last year's Cy Young campaign. Despite the fact that he won't repeat last year's hardware haul -- Jake Peavy has the Cy Young in the bag -- Webb improved on his numbers in most categories, including wins (18 to 16), ERA (3.01 to 3.10) and strikeouts (194 to 178). Not to mention that little stretch of 42 scoreless innings.
Three things to know about the Cubbies:
1. The Cubs can club ... at least lately. The Cubs struggled to hit home runs all year long -- hitting 106 in the season's first five months -- but in September they lived by the longball. During the season's final month Chicago hit a club-record 45 jacks. Alfonso Soriano led the charge with 14.
2. Thanks to Jamey Carroll and the Rockies, Chicago enters the postseason with the Senior Circuit's best pitching staff. With San Diego out of the picture, Chicago boasts the best staff still alive in the National League. The Cubs finished the season with the fourth-lowest team ERA (4.04) in the bigs. Depth is an issue for Arizona, while Philadelphia and Colorado lack much pitching at all.
3. Ryan Dempster's not as bad a closer as it looks. From the surface, Dempster (2-7, 4.73 ERA) looks like an October disaster waiting to happen. But the 30-year-old has converted a respectable 28 of 31 save opportunities this season. Many of Dempster's worst blowups during the regular season came in situations when the game wasn't on the line. Dempster's a closer of the Todd Jones mold -- he may post some ugly numbers, but (at least thus far this season) he gets the job done.
AL East blog (Monday)
NL West blog (Monday)
AL Central blog (Tuesday)
NL Central blog (Wednesday)
AL West blog (Thursday)
NL East blog (Thursday)
Wild Card (Friday)