PHOENIX, AZ - AUGUST 14: Chris Young #24 and Ryan Roberts #14 of the Arizona Diamondbacks high five after defeating the New York Mets in the Major League Baseball game at Chase Field on August 14, 2011 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Diamondbacks defeated the Mets 5-3. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
The Arizona Diamondbacks are in the midst of one of the most surprising contending runs of any Arizona sports team. Is theirs the best?
As I watched the D-Backs put the finishing touches on a relatively impressive sweep of the visiting New York Mets to cap a 7-3 home stand, my most immediate thought was just how fun this squad is. Immediately after that I began to think about just how surprising this season has been for Diamondbacks fans.
Being the history guy around here I then viewed it as my duty to attempt to figure out whether this could be the most surprising contender in Arizona sports. First let's break down the case for these Diamondbacks:
2011 Arizona Diamondbacks:
Coming off a 65-win season and with their major roster moves being adding average veterans (Nady, Blum, Mora, Branyan), middle relievers (David Hernandez), and a closer who hadn't saved more than 15 games since 2007 (J.J. Putz) expectations were not high. Considering their last place finish in 2010 and lack of key moves (unless you count trading a guy who'd led your team in home runs for the last 3 seasons) the majority of predictions had Arizona occupying the cellar once again.
So what's happened? Well it starts with the pitching. Ian Kennedy has followed up a solid 2010 with a stellar 2011 (15-3, 3.12 ERA) while Daniel Hudson has continued his ascent to being one of the top young pitchers in the game.
One of the major differences between 2010 and 2011 is the bullpen. Credit the vision of new GM Kevin Towers who put it together, but starting with Micah Owings in long relief and continuing through Rule 5 lefty Joe Paterson, deadline acquisition Brad Ziegler, setup man David Hernandez, and closer J.J. Putz the bullpen, which was a joke last season, has been excellent.
The offense has been led by an MVP campaign from Justin Upton but goes further than that. Miguel Montero was an All-Star while Ryan Roberts - who wasn't even expected to make the team out of spring training - has been the team's hottest hitter in a couple stretches (just gloss over the part in the middle where he was awful).
As of this morning, the D-Backs hold a two-and-a-half-game lead on the defending world champion San Francisco Giants. If you saw that coming then you're a phenomenal liar.
There's the 2011 D-Backs case, here are some of the other contenders:
1988-89 Phoenix Suns:
During the 1987-88 season the Suns cleaned house, trading remnants of the mid-80's drug scandal and dealing star Larry Nance for young talent like Kevin Johnson and Mark West. A 28-win season was the result.
The 1988 offseason saw the Suns allow the team's all-time scoring leader Walter Davis to find other employment and franchise mainstay Alvan Adams ride off into retirement. Phoenix also signed the NBA's first unrestricted free agent in Tom Chambers and draft Tim Perry and Dan Majerle.
The complete facelift also saw the team fire coach John Wetzel and replace him with Cotton Fitzsimmons - who was in his second stint with the team.
Chambers and Johnson formed a devastating 1-2 combo while 87-88 holdover Eddie Johnson averaged over 20 points a game off the bench. The result saw the Suns win their 28th game by early February on their way to a 55-win season.
Though they were wiped out in the Western Conference Finals by the Lakers it was a shockingly impressive run for a team that just a couple seasons earlier was a candidate for leaving the state all together.
1996 Arizona State Football:
Ranked relatively low in the preseason polls (#20), the Devils announced themselves to the college football world when they shut Nebraska out 19-0 in a late September stunner at Sun Devil Stadium.
Since they were ranked in the preseason and had First Team All-Pac 10 returnee Jake Plummer at quarterback it wasn't a huge surprise that they had a successful season. What was surprising was that they were undefeated until the Rose Bowl and were within a hair of the national title. Damn you Joe Germaine!
1998 Arizona Cardinals:
Hey look, it's Jake Plummer again but this time he's not nearly as highly touted. In 1998 Plummer was in his second season as a Cardinals quarterback and the first in which he was the starter from the beginning of the year.
1997 began with Kent Graham hilariously entrenched in the starting role but after an injury to him, Plummer took over. Jake the Snake excited the fans but statistically he was pedestrian (73.1 QB rating) and the team finished 4-12 - not quite the basis for a playoff run.
And yet after the team started 0-2 in 1998 they finished the season 9-7, making the playoffs on the season's last day. Nothing about the team was really phenomenal, they had a run of the mill offense and a below average defense, but they found ways to win - taking 7 of their 9 victories by three points or less.
For good measure the team won a road playoff game against Dallas before bowing out in a blowout loss to the Vikings.
2004-2005 Phoenix Suns:
This team was basically a science experiment gone incredibly right. After making the playoffs in 2003, the Suns stumbled badly in 2003-2004, firing coach Frank Johnson and trading star Stephon Marbury to New York in order to clear cap space.
Interim head coach Mike D'Antoni was appointed head coach and the team used the cap space to sign All-Star point guard Steve Nash away from Dallas.
With Nash in the fold and D'Antoni's run and gun system getting a full training camp to be implemented, the talents of young guys like Shawn Marion, Amar'e Stoudemire, and Joe Johnson were on full display. Phoenix stormed to a 62-win season and a berth in the Western Conference Finals.
While the 62 wins themselves may have been dramatic, it's isn't incredibly hard to suggest that the young gifted players like Stoudemire and Johnson could blossom with a pure point guard and that Shawn Marion would continue his All-Star play.
2007 Arizona Diamondbacks:
This is the season where the D-Backs had a negative run differential (worse than three teams in their own division) yet still won the NL West on the last day of the season.
What people tend to forget about this team, and what doesn't make it a total shock, is that the team was respectable for the two seasons leading up to 2007. Sure, 2004 was a well acknowledged disaster as the team won just 51 games - but they won 77 and 76 games respectively in 2005 and 2006. It also didn't hurt having Cy Young winner Brandon Webb at the front end of the rotation.
Strong full season debuts for Chris Young, Stephen Drew, and Mark Reynolds were impressive but not shocking. The D-Backs swept the Cubs in the first round but followed that up with a sweep at the hands of the Rockies in the NLCS.
The season was a pleasant surprise but probably not a total shock.
2008 Arizona Cardinals
In sort of the same vein as the 2007 D-Backs this wasn't a total shock. In 2007 - Ken Whisenhunt's first season - the team went 8-8 and showed quite a bit of potential for the future. With Kurt Warner winning the QB job and a weak division it stood to reason that though breaking through to the playoffs is tough, the Cardinals could easily accomplish it.
Though it wasn't always pretty, the team did win 9 games and the NFC West. The real trick for them was their impressive and surprising playoff run.
Acknowledged by many as the worst playoff team in NFL history, the Cardinals got by the Falcons, blasted the Panthers on the road, and beat the Eagles in the NFC Championship to earn their first Super Bowl berth. You know how that one ended.
2009-2010 Phoenix Suns:
Kind of like the last two teams on this list, the 2009-2010 Suns were more a pleasant surprise than an utter shock. Granted the team missed the playoffs in 2009 but a lot of that can be attributed to a season ending injury to Amar'e Stoudemire.
After ridding themselves of the albatross that is Shaquille O'Neal and getting back to a high-paced offensive attack under Alvin Gentry the team won 54 games and clinched the third seed in the Western Conference.
A run to the Western Conference Finals - which they may have won if not for a god-like Kobe Bryant performance and a fluke Ron Artest put back - followed and included a sweep of long-time nemesis San Antonio.
That all said, is it really a shock that a team with two players amongst the NBA's top 10 or 15 could win 54 games? I think not.
2009-2010 Phoenix Coyotes
The Coyotes hadn't been to the playoffs since 2001-2002 and hadn't really even been close since then either. Going into 2009-2010 they had the little matter of franchise relocation and general solvency hanging over their heads and didn't even make any major rosters moves from the previous season.
What they did do was replace coach Wayne Gretzky with Dave Tippett - and apparently that was enough. With Tippett at the helm, the Desert Dogs recorded 28 more points than the previous season and clinched the 4th seed in the Western Conference.
Though they lost in the first round (again) in seven games it was still an impressive and surprising run - particularly considering the off-ice issues.
So what was the most surprising? My personal opinion would be the 88-89 Suns with a nod to the 1996 Sun Devils and 2008 Cardinals for their near championships. But depending on the last month and a half of the season and a possible playoff run, the 2011 D-Backs could make a real play for it.
I plan to enjoy the ride.