Commentary

Improbable D-backs just know how to win

Originally Published: October 6, 2007
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- They defy the numbers. They defy the experts. They practically defy logic itself.

But that's the beauty of those improbable Arizona Diamondbacks. They're a reminder to all of us that there are no magic formulas in this game they play.

NL DIVISION SERIES

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They remind us that you don't need a bunch of old guys with October experience to win. They remind us that you don't need to lead the league in numbers -- any numbers -- to win.

In this sabermetric age we live in, we forget that teams like this are possible -- teams that are more than the sum of any of their statistical parts. But they are possible, all right.

Which is why you'll be turning on your TV this week to watch the team that proves it's possible play in the National League Championship Series.

The Diamondbacks finished off their overpowering sweep of the NL Division Series on Saturday night. They did it with a convincing 5-1 scrunching of the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. And yeah, that's the same Cubs team that all of us ESPN know-it-alls predicted would win this series without taxing its sweat glands.

"Let me tell you something," left fielder Eric Byrnes said as the Piper-Heidsieck bubbly flowed, literally, down his face. "We won this series. The Cubs didn't lose it."

And how right he was. That might not be how the ivy-lovers of Illinois will see it. But he couldn't have been more dead-on.

The Diamondbacks were the team that forced the action, got every big hit for three games and kept on making difference-making pitches and difference-making defensive plays from Game 1 through Game 3.

They outscored the Cubs 16-6 and out-homered the Cubs 6-1. They held the Cubs to a .194 team batting average and an .087 average (2-for-23) with men in scoring position. The Cubs had 37 baserunners in three games -- and scored just six runs.

Arizona's bullpen had a 0.00 ERA over 8 1/3 innings in the series. And the only game in the series in which an Arizona starter allowed more than one run was Game 2. So when you get right down to it, this duel was about as one-sided as postseason series ever get.

Except it wasn't very Diamondbacks-like, at least in one pivotal area:

For a change, they actually won the baseball games and the battle of the stat lines.

That isn't how they got here, of course. This was the team that lost just about every battle of the stat sheet all season long.

This was the team that got outscored by 20 runs for the season. And this was the team that had the worst batting average in its league.

This was the team that scored the second-fewest runs in its league. And this was the team that batted 10 points lower with runners in scoring position than the next-closest club in the NL.

I mean, I don't blame the number-crunchers, the computer geeks, for not being able to come up with a formula for how we got here. But there's a lot more that goes into sports than numbers.

--Arizona outfielder Eric Byrnes

So no wonder the computer programmers keep asking what this outfit is doing still playing. Their hard drives crash every time they even type the name "Diamondbacks."

Asked what he thinks when people start spouting terms like "run differential," Byrnes chuckled: "I laugh. I just laugh. Because it doesn't really apply to what this team is. It doesn't apply to winning baseball.

"I mean, I don't blame the number-crunchers, the computer geeks, for not being able to come up with a formula for how we got here. But there's a lot more that goes into sports than numbers."

Like talent, for instance. That always helps. And the Diamondbacks are jam-packed with talent all over the diamond.

Granted, most of that talent is so young that you'd expect to see these guys running around the Arizona Fall League, not the NLCS. But apparently, nobody told them they weren't supposed to start winning anything until about 2009.

"The conventional wisdom," veteran first baseman Tony Clark said, "was that this was going to take a year, it's going to take two years, it's going to take three years, till these guys get around the league. ... But this group, from a Baseball 101, a baseball-I.Q. standpoint, is very high. And they've been able to take the information they've been given, make the adjustments they needed to make and learn the league along the way."

Diamondbacks
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesThe Diamondbacks always thought they were assembling a championship-caliber club, but one that was built more for next year instead of this one.

The ride wasn't always real smooth. By May 5, this team already had ripped off two six-game winning streaks -- but also two five-game losing streaks.

Another hot streak got the Diamondbacks to 12 games over .500 in early June. But then came a messy 4-13 stretch, wrapped around the All-Star break, that dropped them to 50-48 in mid-July. And the front office now admits it was on the verge of selling at the trading deadline.

But then, just in time, 25 light bulbs went on. Since July 20, counting this division series, the Diamondbacks have gone 43-24. And now, who knows what they are capable of?

"This team," GM Josh Byrnes said, "is growing up."

Byrnes can crunch numbers with any GM in baseball. You won't hear him telling anybody it's time to take all our old, conventional ways of looking at baseball and set them on fire, just because this team won in about as unorthodox a way as any team in modern times.

"In spring training," Byrnes said, "we actually put forth a lot of information, just internally, that this roster composition can win. And internally, we believed in it the whole way. And as the season went along, it proved that as the games got more important, a lot of these players just kept getting better."

Which brings us to right here, right now -- when you look around the field, you can see a whole lot of dazzling pieces fitting together:

You see Stephen Drew and Mark Reynolds putting on a show on the left side of the infield ... Justin Upton and Chris Young tracking down every fly ball that doesn't come down in New Mexico ... Brandon Webb showing why he won that Cy Young last year ... And the least-known great bullpen in baseball doing its thing night after night.

So if you measure these D-backs just by their raw data, boy, do they confound you. But when you watch this team with your own eyes, you understand why it wins.

It was built to win. Just not this year.

"A lot of people said this was our rebuilding year," Young said. "But we're a great team right now."

I know that a lot of guys play 20 years and don't ever get this chance to do what we're doing right now. And a lot of us in here are in our first season, so we appreciate what we have. ... We proved in this series that this is our time.

--Arizona outfielder Chris Young

Hey, no kidding. Young is almost the poster boy for this group. You look at his good-news, bad-news stat line (32 homers, but only 68 RBIs; 27 steals, but just a .295 on-base percentage out of the leadoff hole), and it's tough to decide whether he's a big-time player or not.

But then you see him step to the plate to lead off the first inning of the first road playoff game of his life. And you see him whomp the first pitch of the night into the bleachers for his second game-turning home run of this series. And you understand that this is a guy, like all those young guys around him, who has no fear of the big moment.

"Believe me, I feel just as good if I hit a double off the wall or just have a good at-bat to start the game," said Young, obtained two years ago in the trade that sent Javier Vazquez to the Chicago White Sox. "But when you hit a leadoff homer, it gets the momentum going, no doubt. To get something going, first pitch of the game, your teammates all there waiting for you when you get back -- that's a great feeling."

And once that momentum got rolling Saturday, the Cubs never could get it turned in their favor.

Inning after inning, Arizona starter Livan Hernandez kept Houdini-ing his way out of trouble, stranding eight and throwing three double-play balls in six innings. And the Diamondbacks kept tacking on a run here, a run there, until it was time to pop those champagne corks.

It isn't often you look around at a team spraying champagne in October and want to card half the people in the room. But this wasn't exactly your usual championship locker room.

Of the eight position players who started Saturday, five of them are 25 years old or younger. So let's ask one more time: How do we explain how this happened, again?

"A lot of it," laughed Byrnes, an old-timer in this crowd at age 31, "is youthful ignorance."

But in this case, ignorance really did lead to bliss. Official, certifiable bliss. And even the youth movement understands that bliss is good. Always.

"I know," Young said, "that a lot of guys play 20 years and don't ever get this chance to do what we're doing right now. And a lot of us in here are in our first season, so we appreciate what we have.

"I really believe," he said, "that the Cubs are an amazing ball club. And that's why everybody picked them to win.

"But we proved in this series," Young said, "that this is our time."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," has been published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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