What is one thing that all true champions have? They have a winning attitude and a desire to be the best.
Admittedly, I was skeptical of Kirk Gibson's mission to impart a gritty, tough mentality into the heads and hearts of his players. Spring Training was rife with mistakes and losses, and I feared that there was a long summer in store for baseball fans in Arizona.
After eight games of regular season play, however, that "grit" is really starting to show itself in the box score. The Diamondbacks are playing with an intensity that was sorely missing in 2010. Sloppy play in March is leading to stronger baseball in April, and the overall performance at Chase Field has improved because of it.
"This is the first time in a while that I've felt that everyone is on the same page," D-backs centerfielder Chris Young said after the game. "You gotta pull for each other; you don't have to force it. It's not guys saying ‘let's go' just to say it. It's guys saying ‘let's go' because they want to win." [Chris Young postgame video]
Intangibles are difficult to quantify. Things like effort, heart and hustle don't show up on the stat sheet. In 2010, when the Diamondbacks lost 97 games, the team exhibited few, if any, signs of grit. There were opportunities to succeed, but Arizona failed to make things happen on the field.
So far in 2011, effort has not been a problem. Down five runs after the third inning on Sunday, it was beginning to feel like another Diamondbacks blowout loss. Joe Saunders struggled with his command, and the offense was being locked down by talented Reds pitcher Mike Leake. The 2010 team might have rolled over right then.
Instead, Stephen Drew stepped up and drove in a run in the third. The team kept fighting, and the offense broke through in the fifth inning. Drew singled in Willie Bloomquist; Young converted a sacrifice fly into a run; Ryan Roberts drilled a Leake pitch over the left field wall to take a 6-5 Diamondbacks lead.
"In the grand scheme of things, it really changes the outcome of the game when you've got guys being aggressive throughout the entire game, and not just waiting until its crunch time to try to make something happen. They treat the entire game like it is crunch time. And I think that's making a big difference," Young said.
When Cincinnati fought back to take a 7-6 lead in the seventh frame, the jaded D-backs fan could have conceded the loss to the 2010 NL Central Champions. But a four-run eighth inning, capped by a two out, three-run homer off the bat of Chris Young, put the Diamondbacks right back in the driver's seat.
"We're not accepting losing this year, which is a change," Young said regarding his team's improved attitude in 2011. "It's been great, honestly."
Sure, the team is still making mental errors, and the pitching needs improvement. However, the tenacity on the field is resonating with the crowd, and the fans have cheered loudly thus far for a club that has shown it has the right stuff to challenge even the best of teams.
"The biggest thing for us this year is that ‘never say die' attitude," starting pitcher Joe Saunders said. "It's nice to see that, even when you lose, you're putting yourself in a position to do good things, and that's what we're doing." [Joe Saunders postgame video]
When manager Kirk Gibson has this team performing to the level he desires, the Diamondbacks will be a team that is enjoyable to watch on a consistent basis.
"Overall, I think [pushing the issue] adds pressure to the game and we try to force our opponent into a bad place as well," Gibson said during the postgame press conference. [Kirk Gibson postgame video]
"[The team has] done a great job. Things that we've worked on, they keep pushing it. These days are fun; these days validate why you do it."
Gibson has said that success will not be measured in wins and losses, and now we're seeing the logic behind his way of thinking.
Success is a team that cares, supported by a fan base that appreciates that enthusiasm. Success is passion for the game, and a commitment to delivering a strong effort every day.
In those ways, this team is already becoming a success in 2011.