As you wake up on Memorial Day and flip to the sports section of the newspaper (OK click on SB Nation Arizona) you may notice something funny under the heading MLB Standings. Once you get past Cleveland being 6.5 games up in their division and the Mariners being at .500 you'll get down to the NL West and see this:
Arizona 29-24 .547 -
San Francisco 28-24 .538 .5
Colorado 25-27 .481 3.5
Los Angeles 24-30 5.5
San Diego 22-31 .415 7
No your eyes don't deceive you. The Arizona Diamondbacks - a team that was mercilessly mocked in Spring Training for a seemingly complete void of talent - are sitting in first place above the defending World Series champions.
Since a 4-3 loss to the Dodgers on May 13 that saw the D-Backs record drop to 15-22 the team has torn off 14 wins in 16 games. Some will point out that they feasted on the two worst teams in baseball (Minnesota and Houston) for six of those wins but wins are wins.
Obviously, the Memorial Day baseball standings are worth about as much as the Deutsche Mark but it's more what this represents for Arizona sports fans. What it represents is a bit of hope.
A couple weeks ago I outlined how the fans of this state are going to have at least some stuff to watch over the next few months but I mean really I bullshitted my way through that. The Cardinals and the NFL are in lockout hell and will probably continue down that path, the Suns had a crap year and outside of a late lottery pick they are probably headed for more lockout misery than the Cards so major sports wise we've got the D-Backs.
As mentioned above, expectations were not exactly high. The team was coming off a 97-loss season, had a manager in his first full season, and counted Melvin Mora among its high profile free agent signings. Sure Kevin Towers had taken the reigns of the squad but his initial roster moves seemed to indicate things were going to get worse before they got better. Rebuilding the 2006 San Diego Padres didn't seem like a recipe for success.
This last couple weeks the D-Backs have shaken off over two seasons of irrelevance and become baseball's hottest team.
So the two questions are
(1) - How the hell are they doing this?
(2) - Can they keep it up?
Of those 14 wins, an astounding seven have been by one run. Another five were either by two or three runs. That's winning by the skin of your teeth.
This still isn't a team with outstanding talent. Ryan Roberts - leading the D-Backs with a .280 average sits 58th in the majors in batting average. Obviously I'll get killed for using that stat so I'll also mention that he is in fact 14th in the bigs in on-base percentage.
Beyond that, the team doesn't have a player in the top 20 in home runs or RBIs. Yet they are still scratching runs across so well that they rank sixth in baseball. Despite not even having an OBP over .300, Chris Young is tied for 12th in runs. So while he's not getting on base a ton when he does (see yesterday's thrilling go-ahead run), dude scores.
From a pitching perspective they've been solidly middle of the pack. Ian Kennedy (6-1, 3.01 ERA) has been a front end starter and Daniel Hudson had a great May (5-1, 3.02 ERA) after a rough April (1-4, 5.64 ERA) but the rest of the rotation has been spotty at best. Though a promising debut by Zach Duke combined with a decent May by Joe Saunders and a knock-out first 4 starts by Josh Collmenter are a source of positive thoughts.
The real difference pitching wise has been the bullpen. After 6,955,982 (stat check) blown saves and/or leads in 2010, Towers made it an offseason priority to improve relief pitching - and improve it he has.
Closer J.J. Putz is 16 for 16 in save opportunities and has surrendered just four runs all year while setup man David Hernandez (the jewel of the Mark Reynolds trade) has been nearly as good in giving up just 5 runs in 24.1 innings. Lefty specialist Joe Paterson has given up just 1 run in his 11.2 innings of work - quite a switch from a team that didn't even have a lefty reliever on the roster most of last season.
That brings us to the second question - can these guys keep it up?
After experiments with Russell Branyan and Armando Galarraga, the roster is starting to settle which helps players grow comfortable with their roles. The lineup is never going to be one that strikes fear into opposing pitchers but it would sure help if the struggling Justin Upton could start showing a bit more of that All-Star talent we know he's got in him.
As is usually the case it's going to begin and end with pitching. I see no reason to believe Kennedy and Hudson can't maintain their level of production and the bullpen doesn't appear to be a mirage though I'm sure a few bad outings will come. The major question I've got is whether the team can scratch out reliable enough pitching from the third and fourth spots in the rotation to contend.
Colllmenter has been a nice story but to me he has flash in the pan written all over him. Disagree as you'd like but he seems to be the type of dude who's going to get hit hard when there's more film available on him. That leaves it with Duke and Saunders.
See how I just re-invented the wheel there? All the team needs to do is hit well and pitch well and they'll be able to continue contending. Consider your mind blown.
With Giants catcher Buster Posey on the shelf for the remainder of the season, even if the D-Backs don't continue their recent hot play (and I mean they aren't going 14-2 over and over) they should be able to at least hang around the division race for the next couple months.
And maybe if the team hangs around a while and has a chance in the division they'll be able to add some talent at the trade deadline. Seriously, who knows.
Obviously that's a load of what-if's and half-assed assumptions but with all the crap going against Arizona sports fans right now you'll have to forgive my cautious optimism.