For the longest part this season, centerfielder Chris Young struggled with nagging injuries and an unacceptable batting average.
Now, throw out all previous results on the most meaningful night of the year.
In launching his biggest hit of the season, Young drove a double to the left centerfield gap, scored Paul Goldschmidt and created a 1-1 tie in the seventh inning Sept. 23. From there, Goldschmidt’s two-run triple in the eight snapped that deadlock, In the process, that gave the D-backs a 3-1 win over the San Francisco Giants and the National League West Division title before their home fans.
A Chase Field crowd of 42,606 raised their collective voices when Young grabbed Aubrey Huff’s soft fly to center to end the game, and sent the Diamondbacks into the post-season for the fifth time in the franchise’s 14th year history, and first since 2007.
Young, who threaten to fall below .230 most of the season, continuously told manager Kirk Gibson he was healthy, energized and wanted to stay in the lineup every day. Working with Justin Upton and Ryan Roberts early each day in the hitting cage, Young remained sharp enough to retain his spot in the batting order.
His defensive skills never in question, Young continued to perfect hitting mechanics, and the dividend paid off in the NL West-clinching game.
Young’s one out double to left center in the seventh inning scored Goldschmidt, who walked and energized the crowd. Afterward, Young put that at bat, and the season, in perspective.
“It’s all about winning the game,” he said. “I could have gone 0-for-5 with five strikeouts and if we won, that’s all that counts. Right now, I’m just having fun and appreciate the efforts of 35 guys who brought us here.”
After Young’s double deadlocked matters, that set the stage for Goldschmidt’s game-winning, two run triple in the eighth inning. Closer J. J. Putz slammed the door on the Giants in the ninth, and for Arizona, it’s Hello Playoffs.
“This is unbelievable,” said Putz, who came close to post-season participation earlier in his career with Seattle and the White Sox. “In spring training, we all bought into Gibson’s philosophy and from there, we started to form an identity. It really starts with starting pitching and the starters have been amazing.”
Before the game, Putz approached Gibson and said if the Diamondbacks are ahead, and no matter the score, he wanted to be out for the ninth inning. In doing so, Putz recorded his 44st save, a career best.
The contest featured an outstanding pitcher’s duel between the Giants’ Matt Cain and D-backs’ Joe Saunders. Cain took the loss, but clearly deserved a better fate.
Saunders went seven strong innings, allowed nine hits and one run. That was Orlando Calbrera’s first home run of the season leading off the Giants fifth inning. Cain was lifted after 7.1 innings, gave up the three D-backs’ runs and his record dropped to 12-11.
The better fate went to the Diamondbacks, who finished an importable run from not only worst, but dead last in the NL West basement a year ago. This time, Saunders was trusted to bring the Diamondbacks to the pinnacle of achievement.
“I realized Cain would bring his ‘A‘ game and he did,” Saunders said, who improved to 13-12 and lowered his ERA to 3.58. “I didn’t have my best stuff and was hoping for big hit. That’s when Goldschmidt came through. The defense was unbelievable behind me, and, I’ll tell you, winning divisions gets better every year.”
Saunders was in the post-season with the Angels in 2009, and now his playoff run continues.
The win was also the D-backs’ 46th such victory of the season. That pushes Arizona ahead of the Red Sox, Rockies, Brewers, Phillies and Reds for the most in the majors. Also, the Diamondbacks are 82-0 when leading after the eighth inning, and only the Red Sox (75-0) and Tigers (79-0) remain undefeated when leading after eight innings.
Despite the flow of champagne, celebration and cheers, the Diamondbacks still have one additional challenge. They remain one game behind the NL Central-leading Milwaukee Brewers for the second best league record. Each has five games to play and all five, for each team, is at home.
Coming into play Sept. 24, the Diamondbacks are 91-66 and the Brewers are 92-65.
If the Diamondbacks finish ahead of Milwaukee, they would host the first two games of the Division Series against the wild card team, most likely the Braves. If they do not catch the Brewers, they would open the post-season in Philadelphia next Saturday and Sunday Oct. 1, 2 at Citizens Bank Park. Each would be a best of five series.
TWEAKING THE ROTATION
Gibson and his staff sat down after the recent Pittsburgh series and contemplated different scenarios.
Discussion centered around the pitching rotation, and, in the final analysis, the staff decided to shuffle starters.
Right-hander Josh Collmenter, whose usual start would have been Friday Sept. 23, was moved ahead two days. Saunders was moved up two days and right-hander Ian Kennedy was moved up one.
“You always want to prepare,” Gibson said in his pre-game media briefing prior to the Sept. 23 game with the Giants. “Should we lose the six remaining games we have and the Giants win all of their games, that forces a one game playoff. By having Kennedy pitch on Saturday, his normal turn would be Thursday.”
Gibson wanted to save Kennedy for a possible NL West Division playoff game, a consequence which seemed most unlikely. Now, that will not happen, but Kennedy remains on target to open the NL Division Series next Saturday, Oct. 1.
FROM THE VICTOR TO THE VANQUISHED
With the Diamondbacks winning the NL West Division title, San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy had nothing but praise for the Arizona season.
In a dramatic turnaround, the Diamondbacks finished last season in the NL West basement, 27 games behind the division-leading Giants. Meeting with reporters prior to the division-clinching game Sept 23, Bochy said he was not surprised by the D-backs season.
“We saw last season the kind of pitching they have,” Bochy said. “Plus, they score runs. That’s what wins a division, pitching and the ability to score runs.”
Bochy cited the season catcher Miguel Montero is having (.285, 18 home runs, 84 RBIs prior to the Sept. 23 game) as a principal catalyst for the D-backs success. As well, the Giants skipper reminded listeners that Gibson’s character has a great deal to do with the turnaround.
“Gibby is a no-nonsense guy and brings a winning attitude,” Bochy added. “Together with (general manager Kevin Towers), they both have done a nice job.”
Towers was the general manager and Bochy the field manager with the Padres when San Diego won the NL West title in 2005 and 2006. Strong friends off the field but fierce competitors on the diamond, Bochy is direct when giving Towers the reputation as “a franchise builder.”
“He has a great feel for the game,” Bochy said. “He builds teams through the bullpen and a great evaluator of talent. He’s very competitive and so am I. He wants to beat you as much I was want to win. We’re great friends, and I couldn’t be happier for him and the success he‘s had this season.”