A whole new rat­tle tale

A year af­ter los­ing 93 games, Di­a­mond­backs are win­ning, eye­ing play­offs and look­ing to es­cape Dodgers’ shadow.

Los Angeles Times - - INSIDE BASEBALL - PE­DRO MOURA ON BASE­BALL pe­dro.moura@la­times.com Twit­ter: @pe­dro­moura

Forty min­utes be­fore they took the field in Cincin­nati on July 18, the Ari­zona Di­a­mond­backs re­ceived wel­come news. They were all as­sem­bled in­side the vis­it­ing club­house at Great Amer­i­can Ball Park, brows­ing their phones, play­ing cards, when a Twit­ter re­port that the team had made a big trade caught short­stop Chris Owings’ eye.

“Hey guys,” Owings said non­cha­lantly, ac­cord­ing to team­mates. “We just got J.D. Mar­tinez.”

At first, his fel­low play­ers did not say much. False re­ports hap­pen. Mar­tinez was the top hit­ter thought to be avail­able on the trade mar­ket, and the Di­a­mond­backs have not made a habit of ac­quir­ing promi­nent play­ers on ex­pir­ing con­tracts.

Sec­onds later, the news shot across the MLB Net­work ticker on the club­house tele­vi­sions. Sur­prise and ela­tion en­sued. Soon, the Di­a­mond­backs emerged en­er­gized and thrashed the Reds 11-2. They had scored 10 runs in their five pre­vi­ous games, all losses, as their ex­tended run to start this sea­son fi­nally faded.

“This is a top hit­ter in the game,” said Archie Bradley, Ari­zona’s dom­i­nant setup man. “To think that we added him to our lineup — we al­ready be­lieved in our­selves, but when you add a player like that and you see the front of­fice work­ing, it’s like, they be­lieve in you too.”

This week, Mar­tinez’s navy blue Tigers suit­case still sat in Chase Field’s home club­house, sup­ply­ing a re­minder of his new team’s new sit­u­a­tion. Usu­ally, it is the Di­a­mond­backs who sell off their play­ers at mid­sea­son. They have not won more games than they’ve lost since 2011.

But by pair­ing Mar­tinez with MVP can­di­date Paul Gold­schmidt, the Di­a­mond­backs now boast a vi­cious duo in the mid­dle of their lineup. Even when us­ing ad­vanced statis­tics ad­justed for ball­parks to ac­count for the Chase Field ad­van­tage, no other Na­tional League team has two hit­ters who have been as good this sea­son. (In the Amer­i­can League, the Hous­ton Astros have an un­be­liev­able four.)

Around Gold­schmidt and Mar­tinez, the Di­a­mond­backs of­fer dy­namic out­field­ers A.J. Pol­lock and David Per­alta and pro­duc­tive third base­man Jake Lamb. For their ca­reers, Pol­lock and Per­alta have hit 15% and 16% above the ma­jor league av­er­age. Lamb, 26, was an All-Star this year and ranks third in the Na­tional League with 90 RBIs, one fewer than Gold­schmidt.

Mostly the same mix of men (save Mar­tinez) was aw­ful last sea­son, and the Di­a­mond­backs were not ex­pected to con­tend in 2017. New gen­eral man­ager Mike Hazen was widely re­ported to be seek­ing an es­cape from the mas­sive con­tract the pre­vi­ous regime had handed Zack Greinke.

But the core was kept in­tact, got health­ier, and played bet­ter. Greinke and Gold­schmidt, in par­tic­u­lar, have upped their 2016 lev­els.

“No­body was pay­ing at­ten­tion to us at the be­gin­ning of the year,” Lamb said. “We didn’t care.”

The run be­gan on open­ing night, when they staged a two-out ninthin­ning come­back against San Fran­cisco and closer Mark Me­lan­con, the pre­lude to a 6-1 start.

The Di­a­mond­backs went on to win 44 of their first 70 games. Even though they’d lost three straight to the Dodgers and Chicago Cubs, they en­tered Sat­ur­day on pace to win 90 games.

Still, the Di­a­mond­backs are no bet­ter off in the Na­tional League West race than they were a year ago, ob­scur­ing the im­prob­a­bil­ity of what they have achieved. They en­tered Sat­ur­day 17 games be­hind the first­place Dodgers. On the morn­ing of Aug. 13, 2016, Ari­zona was, yes, 17 games be­hind the first-place Dodgers.

“If I’m the Dodgers, I’m not pay­ing at­ten­tion to any­one,” Bradley said. “What they’re do­ing is pretty in­cred­i­ble. Who cares about any­one else? But at this point last year, we had 40 wins. We were striv­ing to not lose 100 games. And here we are this year, in a play­off race.”

Ari­zona’s pri­mary catcher, Chris Ian­netta, held the same role for the 2014 An­gels, base­ball’s best team that sea­son with 98 wins. They were then trounced in three games by World Se­ries-bound Kansas City, the wild-card win­ner.

“It was right around this time we took off,” Ian­netta said this week. “We couldn’t stop win­ning, beat­ing teams by 10, 12 runs. We clinched early. Then, the last few weeks of the sea­son, we weren’t play­ing for any­thing, and it was tough.”

The An­gels’ run be­gan on Aug. 12, in fact. In­clud­ing their win that day, they went 27-8 un­til they clinched a di­vi­sion ti­tle, then 3-10 un­til their sea­son was over. Es­sen­tially, they got lucky early, and un­lucky late. As Ari­zona tra­versed the first half this year, Ian­netta de­tected sim­i­lar good for­tune com­ing the Di­a­mond­backs’ way.

“I think it’s kind of like the static un­der­tone in the back­ground,” Ian­netta said. “You just kind of un­der­stand that things hap­pen like that. You un­der­stand that there’s gonna be re­gres­sion back to the mean at some point. You don’t want it to hap­pen. You do ev­ery­thing you can on a given day to pre­vent it, but we play too many games for there to not be re­gres­sion back to the mean.”

It came in July and Au­gust. This month, most moves made by firstyear man­ager Torey Lovullo have back­fired. Ear­lier, Lovullo hit on ev­ery­thing, rest­ing his reg­u­lars more than usual only to see his re­serves star.

Now, the man­ager said, the ex­tra rest will stop.

“It’s def­i­nitely go time,” Lovullo said. “My an­tic­i­pa­tion is we’re go­ing to step on the gas pedal a lit­tle bit more than we have been for the first sev­eral months of this sea­son. We’ll see where that leaves us.”

In a three-game se­ries against the Dodgers this week, it left the Di­a­mond­backs close. Though the Dodgers won twice, both teams scored 14 runs. In 13 games this sea­son, Ari­zona has outscored the Dodgers by five but won only five times. The Di­a­mond­backs are en­cour­aged by their per­for­mance against the team they’d al­most cer­tainly face in the Na­tional League di­vi­sion se­ries, if they stay on wild-card pace and win the wild­card game.

“Peo­ple have been try­ing to make sto­ries about our ri­valry within the di­vi­sion,” Lamb said. “I see it as, that’s the best team in base­ball, record­wise, and I think we have a re­ally good team, and let’s see how we match up against them.”

Not well enough, yet. But they re­main proud.

“I keep bring­ing it up, I know,” Bradley said. “But we are over­shad­owed. We won 69 games last year. Now, we’re win­ning. We’re win­ning se­ries. We come into places and peo­ple are like, ‘Oh, we have to play the Di­a­mond­backs.’ ”

Ross D. Franklin As­so­ci­ated Press

THE TOP HIT­TER avail­able at the trade dead­line, J.D. Mar­tinez landed in Ari­zona, an ac­qui­si­tion that bol­stered the team’s play­off bid. He home­red against Dodgers last week, to Austin Barnes’ cha­grin.

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