Future bright for D-backs despite bitter finish
The sting of their Game 5 heartbreak at Milwaukee will linger a bit. Eventually, the Arizona Diamondbacks will be able to feel good about their stunning worst-to-first run in the NL West and what it means for the franchise's future.
''I just told these guys that they should be proud,'' manager Kirk Gibson said after Friday's 3-2, 10-inning loss, ''because they've set the stage and the standard for how we want to play and they've done it all year.''
This team that was supposed to be so lousy can expect to be labeled a contender come spring.
Take the 1-2 pitching punch of 21-game winner Ian Kennedy and 16-game winner Daniel Hudson, add young Josh Collmenter, who had an outstanding playoff start, and perhaps 22-year-old Jarrod Parker up from the minors, and the rotation is strong. Left-hander Joe Saunders is eligible for arbitration after earning $5.5 million this season.
The position-player core of right fielder Justin Upton, center fielder Chris Young, catcher Miguel Montero and shortstop Stephen Drew will be back. Drew should be recovered from a broken ankle in time for the start of spring training. There's no telling what first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, who didn't come up from Double-A Mobile until Aug. 1, can do in a full season.
The bullpen should be more or less intact.
No one should pick the Diamondbacks for last in the division anymore.
''The group of guys we have in here, they know what it takes to grind out every day. Me and that group of guys know what it's all about,'' Upton said. ''That's the type of mentality we're going to take as long as we're here. We're looking forward to next season.''
Upton came of age this season, even if that age is a still-young 24. Targeted for success long before he even came to professional baseball, he finally relaxed and just played the game, taking the advice of batting coach Don Baylor, part of the All-Star coaching staff that molded the team into a contender.
Upton hit .289 with career highs in home runs (31), hits (171), runs (105), doubles (36) and RBIs (88).
Montero had the same kind of breakthrough as he became a clubhouse leader, a vastly improved defender and one of the best-hitting catchers in the game. The friendly, talkative Venezuelan hit .282 with 18 home runs and 86 RBIs.
But this was anything but a one- or two-man team, and the squad that finished the season was quite different from the one that began it.
''I'll tell you what, it's a great group of guys,'' first-year general manager Kevin Towers said. ''We talked about there's always next year and next year will be better. I don't know how it could be better. There were so many exciting wins and come-from-behind wins. Gibby and his staff, the guys grinded all year long. Hopefully this experience will be good and we're in the same position next year, and next year we'll be able to get it done, and be where the Brewers are right now.''
When Drew went down, 33-year-old journeyman Willie Bloomquist became the everyday shortstop and usually the leadoff batter. He isn't sure if he will be back, but he believes he proved something to himself and others in the game.
''You never like to find playing time at the expense of someone getting hurt, especially somebody like Stephen, who's a first-class individual,'' Bloomquist said as he, with the help of his two young daughters, cleaned out his locker Saturday. ''But for me personally it was a good experience to not only play but get a chance to prove to myself that I can play shortstop every day if I have to. There's a lot of things I proved to myself that I can do in this game, and I think proved other people wrong in that sense, too.''
No one came through out of nowhere better than Ryan Roberts. The last man to make the opening-day roster, and only then because Geoff Blum was hurt, took the third base job almost by default and then never let loose of it. The much-tattooed, ever-hustling fan favorite hit .249 with 19 home runs and 65 RBIs. His grand slam in Game 4 against Milwaukee - his second in four home games - blew open a lead that the Diamondbacks never relinquished in sending the series to a deciding fifth game.
Like third, first base was a big question at the start of the season. Xavier Nady finally got most of the playing time, but was lost for the season with a broken left hand. Unsure if he was ready, the Diamondbacks reluctantly brought their big-hitting prospect Goldschmidt up from Double-A Mobile.
In his third day in the majors, Goldschmidt homered off Tim Lincecum in a 6-1 Arizona victory at San Francisco that moved the Diamondbacks out of a first-place tie with the Giants on Aug. 3. A month later, Goldschmidt homered off Lincecum again.
Then came the playoffs, when Goldschmidt led all Arizona regulars by hitting .438 with two home runs and six RBIs, four of them on his Game 3 grand slam. A non-roster invitee last spring, Goldschmidt, just like the entire team, will have a much higher profile next year.
''You can look at it that way,'' he said, ''but for me it's just about improving and trying to improve my game. All that other stuff is not that important. In that respect it will be the same for me, just try to keep learning and improving and get better.''
Second baseman Aaron Hill, after slumping in Toronto for nearly two seasons, hit .315 in 124 at-bats following the trade that brought him and infielder John McDonald from Toronto for second baseman Kelly Johnson. The Diamondbacks hold an $8 million option on Hill for next season, and that might be too steep for the cost-conscious franchise. Hill, though, indicated he would be willing to re-negotiate to try to stay with Arizona.
''They know I've had a blast. They've expressed interest in keeping me. It will work itself out,'' Hill said. ''It wouldn't be too smart to talk about a contract. Obviously, it wasn't the best year all-around, but I did find a little extra spark coming over here and it felt like the old me again.''
The Diamondbacks' 94 victories were 29 more than they managed a year ago - and in their first miserable season of 1998. Gibson, who directed the turnaround, would seem a shoo-in for NL manager of the year.
''I wish spring training started tomorrow,'' stellar setup man David Hernandez said. ''We have a bunch of guys. We don't have very many stars. J-Up, that's about it. That's all you can ask for in a team.''