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In the Dust
Tom Verducci
September 13, 1999
That's where the reviled Diamondbacks, only two years old but already contenders, left the mighty Braves
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September 13, 1999

In The Dust

That's where the reviled Diamondbacks, only two years old but already contenders, left the mighty Braves

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LEADER ENTERING SEASON

DIAMONDBACKS' LEADER(S)

Batting Average

Jeff Conine, 1994 Marlins

.319

Luis Gonzalez

.343

Home Runs

Nate Colbert, 1970 Padres

38

Jay Bell, Matt Williams

32

Runs Batted In

Leon Wagner, 1962 Angels

107

Matt Williams

123

Stolen Bases

Julio Cruz, 1978 Mariners

59

Tony Womack

64

Wins

Carl Morton, 1970 Expos

18

Randy Johnson

14

ERA*

Ken Johnson, 1963 Colt 45s

2.65

Randy Johnson

2.58

Saves

Claude Raymond, 1970 Expos

23

Matt Mantei

17

Strikeouts

Bob Johnson, 1970 Royals

206

Randy Johnson

328

*Minimum one inning per team's games

The only standings that mattered to the Arizona Diamondbacks a year ago were taped to the wall of a back room in their home clubhouse. Sometime in August manager Buck Showalter listed the half-dozen or so sorriest teams in baseball, among which his first-year expansion outfit eminently qualified, and he challenged his club to be the best of the worst for the balance of the season. The Diamondbacks checked those standings daily when they were at home. "It gave us something to play for," third baseman Matt Williams says.

While finishing last in the National League West, Arizona came in second in the Rest; in fact, it had a respectable 35-36 record from July 13 on. However, that still left the Diamondbacks with 97 defeats in a season that began with 31 losses in 39 games, a depressing opening that led to comparisons between Arizona and the 1962 New York Mets. That kind of ineptitude delighted many people in baseball who had begun to despise the Diamondbacks even before general manager Joe Garagiola Jr. made his preseason prediction that Arizona would play .500 ball. Besides sneering at such braggadocio, the detractors accused Arizona of everything from espionage to financial irresponsibility to rewriting how the game should be played, though none of them had actually seen the rumored 300-page, Showalter-edited manual on reinventing baseball. Said one American League advance scout of Showalter, "He operates kind of the way [St. Louis Cardinals manager] Tony La Russa operates: He knows everything, and you don't know anything. After getting that shoved down your throat all spring, I'm tickled when they get beat."

In their second season the Diamondbacks have given their critics another reason to hate them—they're very good. At week's end Arizona led the second-place San Francisco Giants by 6½ games in the West with 25 games to play. Talk about your radical realignment: The Diamondbacks are on pace to stage one of the greatest year-to-year turnarounds in baseball history (an improvement of 31 wins) and to finish in first place six years faster than any other start-up organization in the expansion era.

Last weekend, just when they had begun to wobble and give hope to the Giants and the rest of Arizona's detractors, the Diamondbacks pulled out two stunning wins against the Eastern Division-leading Atlanta Braves to cement their status as an elite team—like it or not. The three-game set in Atlanta served as a Division Series preview, provided no changes occur in the playoff leaders' standings.

After a 7-3 pasting on Friday night at the hands of the Braves—it was the fourth straight day the Diamondbacks lost ground to suddenly hot San Francisco, which at that point trailed Arizona by only five games—the Diamondbacks fell behind 3-0 to righty John Smoltz on Saturday and 1-0 to lefty Tom Glavine on Sunday. Then Arizona recovered to win both games with the kind of grit that Showalter has demanded.

Rookie Erubiel Durazo, late of the Monterrey Sultans, belted two home runs off Smoltz to lead the Diamondbacks to a 5-4 win on Saturday. For shock value, that was nothing compared to what happened the next day. It was a RuPaul kind of game, a victory so convincingly dressed up as defeat that in the top of the ninth inning, Arizona closer Matt Mantei rose from his bullpen seat to pack up his belongings for the trip to Milwaukee.

With the Diamondbacks trailing 5-4 with two outs and nobody on in the top of the ninth, pinch hitter Kelly Stinnett struck out on a pitch in the dirt by fire-balling Atlanta closer John Rocker—and somehow Arizona won 7-5. It was a clip-and-save game, the kind that fills championship scrap-books. The Diamondbacks rallied for three runs after a heady piece of running by Stinnett, who, after the third strike got away from Braves catcher Eddie Perez, forced Perez to throw to first base for the last out. Perez misfired into rightfield, and Stinnett ended up on second. The next batter, rightfielder (and occasional infielder) Tony Womack, singled, and pinch runner Dante Powell barreled past Perez to score the tying run. Two batters later, leftfielder Luis Gonzalez singled in the game-winner and an insurance run.

"It would've been easy for the guy to hang his head and let the catcher tag him," Showalter said afterward of Stinnett's alert play. Indeed, Atlanta rightfielder Brian Jordan had done just that in the fourth inning with a runner at second. "In a whole career [a bad throw] might not ever happen again. But that one time is why you run it out. We want to put our heads on our pillows in the off-season knowing we did everything we could possibly do." That kind of hustle is de rigueur for Arizona. Showalter has instilled such a steely work ethic that when rookie rightfielder Rob Ryan failed to run out a dropped third strike last month, several Diamondbacks veterans scolded him before Showalter had a chance.

No manager since Connie Mack, who owned his Philadelphia Athletics teams, has wielded more authority than Showalter in setting an organization's course. Showalter is in the fourth year of a seven-year contract. During the first two years he had no players, but he had the ear of owner Jerry Colangelo and the power to decide on matters as big as overseeing construction of Bank One Ballpark, Arizona's home field, and as small as where the players' wives should sit for home games.

"That's what drives other people nuts," says former Diamondbacks scout Ted Uhlaender, who quit following last season to take a job with the Giants after he had disagreements with Arizona's front office. "They're jealous [of Showalter]. And they know he has an owner who can get him players. I can see how people don't like him. If you don't know Buck, you see him walking around like King Tut. But if you do know him, you know he's not like that at all. He's a sharp baseball man who's prepared in everything that he does."

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