- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Arizona's Bob Melvin is the National League's Manager of the Year front-runner because of his ability to stay calm amid turbulent times, delegate authority to his coaches and create a comfortable environment in which both veterans and rookies can thrive. Grady Little, please take note.
But when all is said and done, Melvin's biggest judgment call of the season might have been Doppler-related.
The Diamondbacks arrived at Pittsburgh's PNC Park for a Thursday matinee facing a quandary. They had staff ace Brandon Webb ready to go against the Pirates. But the weather forecast was iffy, and a Webb cameo followed by a lengthy rain delay could have made hash of their rotation.
So Melvin and pitching coach Bryan Price contemplated an alternate scenario: If they could throw No. 4 starter Micah Owings and beat Pittsburgh regardless, they would have the luxury of saving their best pitcher, Webb, for the opener of a huge series against Colorado on Friday night at Coors Field.
Every victory counts for only one game in the standings. But if there's such a thing as a twofer, this one qualified.
Owings lived up to his end of the bargain, banging out four hits and beating Pittsburgh 8-0. And now, in a hostile environment against the hottest team in baseball, the Diamondbacks will hand the ball to their big Kentucky hoss.
It'll be Webb, Arizona's stopper and ground ball-dispensing machine, against fellow 17-game winner Jeff Francis, the Rockies' finesse left-hander with a flair for snake-charming; in 13 career starts against the Diamondbacks, Francis is 7-1 with a 3.35 ERA .
While the Mets try to avoid a historic collapse as the Phillies ride their adrenaline rush to the finish and the Cubs look to slip in the side door in Cincinnati, only two sets of National League contenders will play head-to-head this weekend. San Diego, fresh off Thursday night's 9-5 victory at Milwaukee's Miller Park, will try to finish off the Brewers in a season-ending four-game series. But Friday's most compelling matchup takes place in Denver, far enough from New York that you can't hear Willie Randolph's stomach churning or the Wilpons grinding their teeth.
The amazing Rockies have won 11 straight and need to sweep Arizona and get help from Milwaukee to win the NL West outright. Colorado fans, understandably, haven't been this excited about baseball since 1995, when the Rockies made the playoffs as a wild card behind Dante Bichette, Larry Walker and the Blake Street Bombers.
The Diamondbacks and Rockies have a lot in common. They're both expansion clubs that have found religion in recent years and have successfully built through scouting and player development. They see each other a lot in spring training, with complexes just minutes apart in Tucson, and met on Opening Day this season, with Arizona winning 8-6.
Arizona general manager Josh Byrnes once worked as Colorado GM Dan O'Dowd's assistant, and outfielder Eric Byrnes, the Diamondbacks' best position player, passed through Denver in 2005 before finding peace and contentment in the desert.
While the Rockies are closing with a rush, the Diamondbacks have fended off predictions that they might fold down the stretch. They've done it without Randy Johnson and team energizer Orlando Hudson, who's wearing a Sedona-red wrap on his injured thumb and talking a blue streak in the dugout as a self-appointed surrogate bench coach.
D-backs vs. Rockies
The Diamondbacks are hanging on thanks in part to a monster September by switch-hitter Tony Clark, who has a 1.162 OPS and five homers in 46 at-bats this month.
"He still has good power the other way,'' said a scout who watched Clark go deep in Pittsburgh on Thursday. "He knows he doesn't have the bat speed of old, so he's really geared toward the opposite field.''
Webb has pitched well against Colorado throughout his career, but is 0-3 with a 6.47 ERA versus the Rockies this season. However, much of that damage came in April and May, before he went on his big midseason run.
Saving Webb for Colorado wasn't the only fringe benefit for Arizona on Thursday. The Diamondbacks were planning to hold their rookie hazing initiation on the flight from Pittsburgh to Denver, but it might have been tough to pull off after being swept by the hapless Pirates.
After Owings' victory, more than a dozen baby-Backs donned garish outfits straight out of a Halloween thrift store. As the Diamondbacks deplaned in Denver, stunned onlookers saw Miguel Montero dressed as a cheerleader, Justin Upton as a baby, Mark Reynolds as a nurse, Jeff Salazar as Wonder Woman, reliever Doug Slaten as a 6-foot-5 elf, and Owings, the hero of the day, wearing a clown outfit.
Now the Diamondbacks will face the Rockies behind Webb, all dressed up as a team stopper.
"Obviously, he's our best pitcher and one of the best in baseball,'' Josh Byrnes said late Thursday night. "We couldn't ask for anything more. It was sort of unforeseen why we skipped him, but it turned out to be a good thing.''
Catching the D-Train
The Mets play host to Florida this weekend, and they appear to have the edge in the first two pitching matchups. The Mets send Oliver Perez to the mound against Byung-Hyun Kim in the series opener, and throw John Maine against Marlins rookie Chris Seddon on Saturday.
If you Google the words "Dontrelle Willis" and "Met killer," you'll come up with 253 matches. Willis is 11-3 with a 2.50 ERA in 18 career starts against New York, and he's at his best at Shea Stadium, with a 5-0 record and a 2.70 ERA against New York.
Willis, looking to salvage a disappointing season, is coming off an impressive outing against the Cubs. He has lost his grip on the strike zone for extended periods this season and has been extremely vulnerable against right-handed batters, but he's a relentless competitor who goes full-bore whether it's spring training or the World Series.
From the Mets' end, David Wright (14-for-37, .378) and Moises Alou (8-for-17, .471) both wear out Willis. It's doubtful that Randolph would consider sitting Paul Lo Duca in the season finale, but look for backup catcher Ramon Castro to at least get a pinch-hit appearance. In 11 career at-bats against Willis, Castro has two homers, two doubles and a 1.091 slugging percentage.
• Give credit to the Cardinals, who could have played out the string after a recent nine-game losing streak killed their season. First St. Louis beat Milwaukee in their series finale Wednesday, getting Brewers manager Ned Yost suspended in the process through a beanball war. Then the Cardinals boarded a plane for a meaningless (for them) makeup game Thursday in New York and put the clamps on a shockingly lifeless Mets team. The Cardinals already were looking at Joel Pineiro as a No. 4 or No. 5 starting candidate for next season, and he might have removed all doubt with his performance in St. Louis' 3-0 victory.
• The Cubs can't complain about bad luck or curses this week. With a chance to put away the Brewers, Chicago allowed Florida to record its first three-game sweep at home all season. Now the Cubs travel to Cincinnati to play a Reds team that's missing Ken Griffey Jr. (groin strain) and Adam Dunn (knee surgery), not to mention Josh Hamilton (hamstring). Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips is due: He's hitting .217 with no homers in 15 games against the Cubs this season.
• It's a big weekend for pitchers in search of redemption. Brewers starter Chris Capuano, trying to win for the first time since May 7, fills in for Ben Sheets on Friday night against San Diego. Mark Redman, who pitched miserably with Atlanta earlier this season, will start for Colorado on Saturday. And Adam Eaton, who's given the Phillies one quality start (six innings or more, three earned runs or less) in his past 15 appearances, gets the nod against Washington's Matt Chico on Saturday at Citizens Bank Park.
• The Angels are 12-13 this month, and they've dropped four of their past five to cede the honor of the American League's best record to Boston or Cleveland, but here's one positive sign: Workhorse reliever Scot Shields has allowed one earned run in his past five innings and shown signs of overcoming his recent problems. The Angels are going to need Shields if they plan to go deep into October. "He's very athletic, and when he's right, he's really able to command the ball,'' said a scout. "But a lot of things can go wrong with his delivery. There's some maintenance to it.''
• How vital is it for Willie Randolph to avoid dipping into his bullpen too early? The Mets are 68-27 when their starting pitcher goes at least six innings. They're 19-45 when the starter departs sooner. Of course, that didn't help Pedro Martinez much against St. Louis.
• Heading into the final weekend, no National League team has locked up a postseason berth. Since 1995, there have been only two other seasons in which no team in a league had clinched a spot with less than a week to play. In 2001, all four National League teams qualified on the final Friday of the season. In 2005, the Angels were the first American League club to clinch, with five days remaining.
The D-backs' decision to save Brandon Webb an extra day has already paid off, allowing their ace to open a critical weekend series in Colorado.