The Arizona Diamondbacks are exceeding all expectations. Before the 2011 MLB season they were picked by Vegas experts to win 72 games and were an 18/1 long-shot to take the NL West pennant. Even the most optimistic and diehard fans all had the team finishing under .500, "I want to stay positive and say 78 (wins)".
Now it's early August and the Snakes are 10 games over .500 and nipping at the heels of the San Francisco Giants. People who scoffed at this team's chances in April are starting to seriously consider Arizona as a playoff team. And let's be honest: the group of converted naysayers is very large...but it doesn't include the boys in the club house.
Starting With Chemistry, Playing With An Edge
"We knew that we had a chance in spring training and didn't really listen to the critics and the analysts because obviously, anybody could have told you what they were going to say due to the past two years that we weren't very good," said Ryan Roberts, an unexpected contributor to this winning season.
It was surprising to hear Roberts say his belief started in spring training given the dismal preseason record (12-25) that did nothing to build confidence in those outside the organziation. According to Roberts though, within just a few weeks of practice the revamped team was meshing together as a unit.
Despite the recent tendency to break the game of baseball down into its smallest individual mathematical components, team chemistry still matters.
One aspect of the psychological game we often see in sports is the "underdog phenomenon" where teams who are discounted and have something to prove play with an extra edge.
"Your mindset as a player is to prove all the naysayers wrong," starting pitcher Joe Saunders explained. "That's what I love about sports. I love the underdog, I love being able to have the chance to knock off the champs and we've put ourselves in a position to do that this year."
Still though, it's one thing to "play for your brothers" (as Roberts sees it) and to make people put their "foot in their mouth" (as Saunders explained). It's another to actually find yourself in a pennant race in August.
Turning Point From Belief To Confident
For Justin Upton there's always belief but there was a specific turning point in the season as well.
Like most great athletes, Upton thinks he can win every time he takes the field. There's a fine line between cocky and confident, a line so thin that it can be hard for outsiders to distinguish. Humility is an important part of the game, especially baseball, but you also have to be confident every time your number is called.
Upton's maturity this season (he's still only 23 years-old) has helped him find that balance and the results are stunning. He's emerged as a legit star in the game and for the first time in his career is getting MVP buzz. It won't be the last time.
Justin explained when his confidence in his team went to a new level: "I thought months ago, back in May when we got ourselves back up in second place, I said if we continue to play good baseball we can be in this thing."
The point the talented young right fielder is talking about has proven to be the most important stretch of the season.
The Diamondbacks bottomed out at seven games under .500 and fifth place in the NL West on May 16. They had just completed a nine-game road trip against the Padres, Dodgers and Giants and managed just three wins.
Of the six losses, remarkably, all six were by just one run. That was gut check time. Teams without the D-backs' quality of leadership and chemistry often go in a slump after a stretch like that. The 2010 Diamondbacks most certainly would have.
Instead, this 2011 group of "misfits" rattled off a 13-2 run and went from fifth to first place in the NL West. They've never been out of second since.
Gibby's Humble, Confident Baseball
The attitude and mentality of the 2011 Diamondbacks starts with Kirk Gibson and his experienced, highly respected coaching staff. It takes a unique combination of humility and confidence to surround oneself with talented people and willingly solicit and listen to their advice. It's that confidence and humility he displays daily that are the life blood of this team. The grit, fight and determination they've shown are the visible results.
In just his first full year running the ship, Gibson understands what he does and doesn't know about the game but what's separated him from the pack and made this team so successful is his ability to help his players channel their competitive emotions in a positive direction.
Gibson's reputation as a player is often described as "fiery" and "fierce." Through time he's mellowed some, but what he's also learned is how to be effectively mad. As the pressure of the race heats up is when Gibby's experience as a World Champion carries even more weight.
On a recent 6-3 road trip (a mirror image of May trip through California) Xavier Nady almost broke his foot kicking a cooler. David Hernandez cut his finger throwing something in anger that almost kept him off the mound. And Justin Upton had a well-documented dugout tirade after misplaying a ball in the field.
"The stakes get a little hotter as you go. I like it that you care," Gibson said before adding with a wry grin, "I would say it's fairly hypocritical for me tell people not to kick things or to throw things or to swear. I have to measure the way I do that. I try and point out why it's not a good idea but I'll be honest that it's almost comical that I'm the guy telling you."
(It's worth watching the clip of Gibson answering this question just to see his grin -- starts at the 9:35 mark)
For Gibson, there was never a turning point in the season where his confidence changed or his belief in the team's ability to win the pennant increased. He doesn't look at things that way. Gibby is micro-focused on each game, each at-bat, each decision and each play.
When he does lift his head from the trees, it's all about the journey. It's about staying humble in the face of success and determined and resilient in the face of adversity. Like many greats, the results matter but only as an outcome of each tiny step taken along the way.
"I think that as the season rolls on the pace picks up for everything, Gibson said. "The pace has picked up, can we continue to keep the pace. Can we do that? That's what we're excited to find out."
Humble and confident.
Cutting room floor quotes:
- "I definitely didn't expect our team to play as well as we have but I knew we had the potential to do it."
- "I'm not a negative person. A lot of our fans have been negative towards us the last few years because of how our teams have turned out, how our seasons have turned out, but I've never been negative about this team or this organization."
- "I'm never going to sit here and say I had to make myself believe that because I didn't. I believe every night I go on the field that I'm going to win and we have a chance to win."
- "I love proving people wrong and making them put their foot in their mouth and that means a lot to me."
- "I think we always believed from day number one that we had a great bunch of guys here, we've got a bunch of talent, and it was just a matter of putting everything together."
- "We had some tough stretches early on, including myself, and we just kept believing that hey, if you keep your chin up, and keep your confidence up, and go out there everyday and give everything you got on a day-to-day basis that we're going to be fine and that's what we've done."
- "We've played solid, consistent baseball all season and we're looking forward to doing that down the stretch."
- "Every team has their woes but it's just a matter of having confidence in your teammates that they're going to step up and contribute and that's what we have. We have a bunch of kind of misfits here but everybody works together well and everybody contributes what they can contribute and that's been our whole thing."
- "In a sense you can't blame them. It's not like in the last couple of years we've given people a reason to believe we could win."
- "Credit to the front office. They put together a team that meshes well and has one goal in mind and that's play 100 percent all nine innings no matter what the score is. That being the start of it, we as players in spring training saw out of everybody, coaching and players included."
- "We were focused on one thing and that was get meshed with each other and get on the same page of playing 100 percent in all nine innings."
- "It was a learning process more so than a winning process in spring training so the record in spring training didn't reflect how we thought of ourselves as a team."
- "The turning point came in spring training. Once we spent about a week together in practice, talking with each other, everybody hit it off well and got along real well so we knew that as a team that was a first step."
- "We knew mentally in spring training that we had a chance but physically it wasn't there yet. Once we opened up the season we even struggled a little bit with wins and loses but that didn't change our mindset. Our mindset was from Day 1, let's try and win a World Series."