Unlikely turnaround? Don't tell that to D-backs - NBC Sports

Unlikely turnaround? Don't tell that to D-backs
Gibson focused on playoffs in spring, put culture in place to make it happen
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Arizona manager Kirk Gibson says his surprising team isn't done yet. "We're a pretty damn good team; I've got news for you.''
September 30, 2011, 12:09 am

The Diamondbacks couldn't catch the ball, didn't prevent enough runs and finished with the worst record in the Cactus League at 12-25 - not the spring you're looking for coming off back-to-back 90-plus-loss seasons.

So imagine club president Derrick Hall's surprise when manager Kirk Gibson talked to him one spring training day about, "the things we have to do to get to the playoffs."

"I thought, 'Boy, you're crazy,' " Hall said during the Diamondbacks' raucous NL West-clinching celebration. "Gibby displayed a surprising level of confidence."

Or on another occasion this spring, when general manager Kevin Towers told Hall, "We're going to win 90 games this season."

"I said, 'Really?' " Hall said. "Nobody gave us a shot, but that's how we're built - with character. It's been magical. One word - magical."

It all starts with Gibson. He's a virtual certainty for NL Manager of the Year after a worst-to-first turnaround matched only twice previously - by the 1999 Diamondbacks and the 1991 Atlanta Braves.

"He is one of most focused managers I've ever had," Towers said. "From the minute he steps in this clubhouse until the minute he leaves, it's all baseball. The guy is a winner. He was a winner as a player, and now he's proven he's a winner as a manager."

But for everything that has gone right for Gibson and the Diamondbacks this season, it's easy to forget that he entered it with question marks attached, too. After all, the team played to virtually the same .400 winning percentage after Gibson was elevated from bench coach to replace A.J. Hinch last July 1.

The Diamondbacks drilled incessantly each spring morning on holding runners, taking the extra base, pitchers' batting skills, etc. - to the point that Towers recently said players might have been a bit worn out for the Cactus League games.

But it wasn't until mid-May - when the Diamondbacks were struggling along at 15-22 - that things began to click with a 15-2 run that included winning streaks of six and seven games.

"People thought Gibby maybe was a bit crazy in spring training, with all the stuff he was making us do," closer J.J. Putz said. "But after that stretch in May, that's when we started gaining our identity as a team. Guys thought, you know what? Maybe he isn't crazy. He does know what he's doing."

And that's when a long list of positive developments began to mount, led by Charles Nagy's pitching staff:

  • Putz and setup man David Hernandez - both Towers' off-season acquisitions - anchoring the back of the bullpen, a spot so weak in 2010 that the Diamondbacks posted one of the worst-ever bullpen ERAs in the modern era.
  • Cy Young Award candidate Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson stepping to the front of the rotation on their way to 21- and 16-win seasons and 200-plus innings - with solid support from Joe Saunders, who shook off the disappointment of being traded from the Angels in July 2010 to go 12-12-3.58 and also cross the 200-inning plateau.

"The bullpen doesn't matter if the starting rotation doesn't go deep (in games)," Putz said. "It doesn't allow Gibby to match up the way he'd like to with the bullpen guys. We felt that if our starters could keep us in games, we had a chance to be a pretty good club. We knew our offense could bang the ball around a little bit."

  • Justin Upton's ascent to stardom, aided by the wisdom of hitting instructor Don Baylor. Right behind Upton in the order, All-Star catcher Miguel Montero's staying healthy all season, improving his throwing and fulfilling offensive promise with a .282-18-86 stat line.
  • The career year of journeyman Ryan Roberts, leading underrated but valued contributions including Gerardo Parra's left-field defense and .295 average, Willie Bloomquist's versatility and Micah Owings' 7-0-3.16 season as a middle reliever/spot starter.
  • Josh Collmenter, the rookie with the unconventional delivery honed when he threw tomahawks as a kid, grabbing the No. 4 rotation spot and stabilizing what had been an early-season problem area.
  • Paul Goldschmidt's middle-of-the-lineup production after his Aug. 1 recall - another key rookie contributor who ended a revolving-door first base situation.

The winning continued - escalated, actually - even after star shortstop Stephen Drew went down in July with a fractured leg.

Helped by Towers' in-season acquisitions of reliever Brad Ziegler, second baseman Aaron Hill and defensive whiz infielder John McDonald, the Diamondbacks went on a 16-3 run from Aug. 26 to Sept. 9 to leave the defending World Series champion Giants in their wake.

"I really think we have a special team," Kennedy said. "We've taken on the character of our manager and coaching staff. We think we can keep going - why not? We've (surprised) all year."

Added Gibson: "A lot of people didn't expect us to get here. But you have to become your own 'experts'. If you continue to push, you've got a shot. If you take your hat out of the ring, you've got no shot.

"We had a vision, and we stuck with it. We're in good position now to go further. We're a pretty damn good team; I've got news for you."


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