The 2011 National League West Division race is taking a shape that no one foresaw, as last week its defending champion team found itself challenged in a head-to-head showdown series with first place in the balance—and the challenging team was the one that had been buried deep in the division basement for the past two years.
How has this odd turn of events come to pass? To answer that question, let’s first consider the three division teams not engaged in the top-spot showdown.
The ball club that led the NL West for nearly all of 2010, at times by a wide margin, only to finish a close second, has been in dead last just about from the get-go in 2011. To be sure, the San Diego Padres designed this to be a rebuilding year when they traded superstar first baseman Adrian Gonzalez for prospects to avoid losing him to free agency. But one suspects the Padres didn’t anticipate their 2011 struggles to be quite this daunting.
Everyone knew the San Diego offense would take a hit without Gonzalez’s booming bat as its centerpiece—how could it not?—but it’s done more than take a hit. It’s been pulverized, from league-average status in 2010 to league-worst so far this year.
Everyone knows that San Diego’s beautiful Petco Park is pitcher-friendly, but this is ridiculous: In 40 home games so far in 2011, the Padres have scored a grand total of 99 runs—that’s right, fewer than 2.5 per game—while compiling a home-cooked team batting average of .208. Not even the Padre pitching staff, which has, as expected, been quite good, can do anything with that level of “support,” and thus San Diego has been a disastrous 14-26 at home.
Exasperated, the Padres recently called up 21-year-old rookie first baseman Anthony Rizzo, the prime prospect received in return for Gonzalez, from Triple-A. Rizzo was sensational in the minors, but it’s a lot to expect of a rookie, even one with sensational minor league stats, to be the savior of a last-place offense. Nevertheless, that’s the situation in which Rizzo and the Padres find themselves as of this June. Welcome to the big leagues, kid! No pressure!
The Los Angeles Dodgers have been resolutely “chasing” the Padres in the “pursuit” of last place. Few predicted the Dodgers to be a strong contender in 2011, but .500-ish was what most of us anticipated, not the listless stumble they’ve presented instead. Particularly frustrating for the Dodgers is that they’re losing despite receiving a world-class superstar performance from center fielder Matt Kemp, blazing back from a sub-par 2010.
But little else has gone well in Los Angeles, and, of course, the ball club’s on-field performance has been hugely overshadowed by the soap-opera circus surrounding embattled owner Frank McCourt. It’s been big news every time McCourt is able to make his payroll obligations, which isn’t exactly an environment likely to produce relaxed ballplayers focusing on their game and performing their best (which makes Kemp’s breakout all the more remarkable).
Even if Kemp cools off, the Dodgers seem capable of playing better ball than this. But up to this point they’ve featured a few stars, a lot of holes, and a general sense of ennui. Unless things turn around, this could be the worst year for this once-great franchise in a long, long time.
Confounded in Colorado
The team most everyone expected to be challenging San Francisco for the top had instead been below .500 from late May until this weekend. And what’s perplexing about that is that the Colorado Rockies roared out to an 11-2 start, but they’ve been locked in a dull slump nearly ever since.
If there’s good news for the Rockies, it’s that the cause of their struggle is no mystery. Aside from struggling ace Ubaldo Jimenez, who slumped terribly in the early going but has shown signs of coming around, the Colorado pitching has been just fine. The problem has been squarely on the side of run production.
The Rockies have presented offensive sinkholes at multiple positions, and the two biggest bats they’re counting on—those of shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, both of whom were among the top five in NL MVP voting in 2010—haven’t met expectations.
The Rockies are by no means out of it, and the wild card-winning Colorado teams of both 2007 and 2009 got there with red-hot September charges. This Rockies ball club might well pull itself together and be right in the thick of things before long; indeed by winning back-to-back series this week, they might have already begun their return to contention.
Still, it’s simply the case that regaining the .500 mark in mid-to-late June is not a recommended step along the path to the post-season.
Which brings us to the erstwhile doormat and overnight contender: The Arizona Diamondbacks. Just last week, THT’s Steven Booth posted an excellent explanation of the moves undertaken by GM Kevin Towers and field manager Kirk Gibson and the strong performances of numerous key players that have so suddenly turned this team around.
There’s still a long way to go in 2011, of course, and the quality of these D-backs is anything but proven. But so far they’ve been a great story, one of the best in baseball this year. And so it was that this from-out-of-nowhere upstart found itself with a 37-30 record last Tuesday, just a half-game out of first place, squaring off for a three-game series at home against the division-leading Giants.
Sweating in San Francisco
To be sure, as division-leading and defending division-, league-, and World Series-champion teams go, these Giants are about as unimposing as can be. Though they arrived in Phoenix with a record of 37-29, they’d pulled off that feat despite scoring fewer runs than they’d allowed in 2011, thanks to an “offense” that had managed to score more than five runs in just 11 of their 66 games.
The 2011 Giants have been mauled by a swarming pack of vicious injuries, the most serious being the season-ending (and perhaps career-threatening) broken-leg-with-ligament-damage wound suffered by cleanup-hitting catcher Buster Posey.
The reason the Giants haven’t collapsed is quite simple: Their pitching staff is tremendous, just as it was in 2010. It’s because of that pitching that, despite manager Bruce Bochy having to improvise daily to piece together a batting order filled with has-beens, aren’t-yets, and never-will-bes, San Francisco came in to the series at Chase Field with a record of 24-14 since early May.
And for the opening game of the Arizona series, there was at last some good news for the Giants on the injury front. Back from the disabled list and in the lineup for the first time in a month-and-a-half was Pablo Sandoval, whose over-.300-with-power bat seemed like an artifact of ancient mythology to Giants fans, something described in words and longingly dreamed of but never actually witnessed in modern life.
The showdown series
If the series promised to be a good one, it didn’t disappoint in the least.
In the first game, on Tuesday evening, June 14, the Giants struck early and often against Arizona starter Josh Collmenter, scoring a run on three hits in the first inning, another run on two hits and a safety squeeze in the fourth, and three runs on a walk, three hits, and a botched rundown in the fifth. Five runs in five innings is the equivalent of a thermonuclear detonation from the Giants’ attack, and with a 5-0 lead behind ever-steady Matt Cain, this ballgame seemed all but over.
To everyone except the Diamondbacks, that is, who refused to fold. They broke Cain’s shutout by plating a run with a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the fifth, then got themselves right back in it with a three-run homer by Miguel Montero in the sixth.
In the top of the seventh, San Francisco scored, but then stranded a runner at third with one out. That missed opportunity loomed large as the Diamondbacks chased Cain with a run in the bottom of the inning to make it 6-5 Giants through seven.
At this point the bullpens stiffened, and there was no further scoring. But to say simply that is to greatly understate how exciting the situation became in the bottom of the ninth.
With two outs and the bases empty, Giants closer Brian Wilson issued back-to-back walks, then wild-pitched (and really wild-pitched, the fastball sailing right over the catcher’s head to the backstop on the fly) the runners to second and third, before freezing Stephen Drew on the next pitch with an off-speed slider at the knees. Called strike three, ball game over.
Wednesday evening’s game saw the Giants again score a run in the first inning, but the Diamondbacks tied it with a Willie Bloomquist home run in the third. The Giants scored a second run in the top of the fourth, but the Diamondbacks tied it with a Chris Young homer in the bottom of the inning.
The Giants scored a third run in the sixth (driven in on a single by Bill Hall, a free agent picked up following the probably-season-ending, and possibly-career-ending, shoulder dislocation suffered by second baseman Freddy Sanchez a few days earlier), and it was 3-2 San Francisco in the bottom of the eighth.
Then came the play of the game.
With two outs in that bottom of the eighth and Kelly Johnson on first, Young drilled a wicked liner that landed just fair down the left field line, whistling into the foul territory of the left field corner. Johnson, off at the crack of the bat, seemed certain to score the tying run.
But San Francisco left fielder Aaron Rowand (regularly maligned by Giants’ fans for his woeful hitting) raced over and made a sparkling bare-handed grab of the wildly ricocheting ball, and then fired an on-the-fly strike to cutoff man Miguel Tejada (also regularly maligned by Giants’ fans for his woeful hitting and fielding), who wheeled and fired an on-the-fly strike to catcher Eli Whiteside (yes, also regularly maligned by Giants’ fans for his woeful hitting and fielding), who cleanly received it and placed the tag on a sliding Johnson. Out number three.
It was a perfectly executed play. Baseball simply cannot be performed any better than this, even if pulled off by a trio of San Francisco goats.
The Giants added two insurance runs in the top of the ninth off Arizona closer J.J. Putz (and hit him pretty hard in doing it, one of the blows a towering 413-foot-triple by, of all people, Whiteside) and the game would end 5-2 (though, in typical Brian Wilson fashion, with the tying run at the plate).
Losing the first two games of the series, the Diamondbacks had not only surrendered the chance of grabbing first place, they now were faced with the prospect of a sweep—of being spanked and taught a lesson.
Enter Arizona ace Ian Kennedy, who wouldn’t hear of such nonsense. In Thursday evening’s game, he calmly and methodically stifled the Giants offense that had so uncharacteristically plated 11 runs in two games. In eight innings, Kennedy allowed just four singles and a walk while striking out 10. The only run he surrendered was unearned, scoring on a Montero throwing error.
But Giants’ starter Ryan Vogelsong (another of this season’s best stories) was nearly as sharp, a two-run homer by Young the only damage he would permit. Thus the game went into the ninth with Arizona clinging to just a 2-1 lead, and for the second consecutive night Putz couldn’t handle the Giants. Singles by Sandoval and Aubrey Huff and a sacrifice fly by Pat Burrell tied the score and blew the save.
Into extra innings this one went, but not very deeply. With one out in the bottom of the tenth, San Francisco reliever Santiago Casilla (working into his second inning, a deployment by Bochy that certainly can be questioned) left one just a bit too fat for Justin Upton, who lofted it out over the right-center-field fence for the ball game.
The dramatic game-winning blow put an exclamation point on three games of scintillating baseball.
There’s more than half the season left to play, and either or both of these teams might not manage to still be fighting for first place by the time the stretch run comes around. But they also might. The Diamondbacks and Giants have nine more head-to-head games on the schedule, including six in September. This mid-June series provided the season’s first taste of pennant-race-style confrontational tension, and it was sheer, radiant fun.