After the disastrous season of a year ago, patience ran thin within the Diamondbacks organization.
Here was a team coming off two years of playing exactly .500 baseball and then fell completely apart. After dropping their initial two games to the Dodgers in Sydney, Australia last season, the wheels immediately fell off, and the Diamondbacks proceeded to finish with the worst record in major league baseball.
Enter Hall-of-fame manager Tony La Russa, who was brought in to right the ship, and carried a no-tolerance disposition.
After all, La Russa, who finished a stellar career as manager with the White Sox, Oakland and St. Louis, amassed the third highest wins of any skipper in the history of the game.
Immediately coming on-board as the Diamondbacks’ Chief Baseball Officer, La Russa made room for former pitcher Dave Stewart as his general manager, once a Cy Young winner. In part of his resume, Stewart won 20 or more games for four consecutive seasons, and MVP in the 1989 World Series.
Combined, the pair brought achievement and stability to a baseball franchise desperately lacking direction.
As the Diamondbacks approach the All-Star break, their rise in the National League West standings has taken several pundits by surprise.
Not La Russa.
At the general manager’s meeting last November in Phoenix, La Russa told reporters he would be, in his word “shocked” if the Diamondbacks did not finish at least .500.
The response, by several, was as laughable as it was unrealistic.
Coming into Tuesday’s game with the NL West Division-leading Dodgers in Chase Field, the Diamondbacks hang precariously close to the .500 mark at 37-39. Equally important, they are in third place within the division, and five games behind the Dodgers.
“We knew as early as spring training that was a good character group,” said manager Chip Hale. “We tried to mold this team to in play (in Chase Field). This is a good hitters ball park and we know we can score. Now, we’re showing we can score late in games.”
While the Diamondbacks hang tantalizing close to the .500 mark, Hale added, “this team is better than our record shows.”
The difference has been striking.
After 76 games under manager Kirk Gibson a year ago, the franchise floundered, sported a 35-51 mark, languished in past place, and occupied a distant 12 ½ games out of first place.
Gibson and previous general manager Kevin Towers were dismissed in September by La Russa, and La Russa started with essentially a clean slate.
To understand the Diamondbacks rise, there are two factors which account for their ascendancy within the NL West division.
One has to do with Hale’s approach to the game.
In a short period of time, the Diamondbacks have turned into one of the most aggressive teams in baseball. That’s especially true running the bases.
Coming into Tuesday’s game, they are second in the majors with 72 stolen bases and trail only the Reds (82). Houston tops the American League with 61 steals.
Plus, A. J. Pollock, with already a career-high 16 steals, and Paul Goldschmidt, with 15 steals and but three shy of a career-best, are both within the top 10 among National League base-stealers. Only the Pirates also have two in the top 10 among NL base stealers.
Hale gives credit to his base coaches, Andy Green at third and Dave McKay over at first, for intelligently reading defenses and putting Arizona base runners in an envious position to be aggressive.
If Hale is pushing the right buttons on the field, La Russa and Stewart are pushing the right button upstairs.
With a no-nonsense approach, La Russa, who is likely making the most significant baseball decisions, banished opening day starter Josh Collmenter to the bullpen, sent ineffective reliever Addison Reed to the minors, moved Brad Ziegler into the closer spot, decided starter Allen Webster had no value beyond his four, ineffective starts, and shipped outrageous salaries owed to pitcher Trevor Cahill and Bronson Arroyo out of the desert.
As well, La Russa recognized the limited value of Mark Trumbo and shipped the outfielder to Seattle for catcher Welington Castillo.
Now with times at bat accumulating and a comfortable command of the pitching staff, Castillo’s acquisition continues to make La Russa look like a worthy deal-maker.
At the same time, La Russa, Stewart, Hale and other decision-makers took an added measure of patience with Yasmany Tomas.
After the experiment of Tomas playing third base in spring training turned into a disaster, the organization made the decision to transition to native of Cuba to the outfielder, his natural position.
Dealing Trumbo was part of the equation for the transfer of Tomas to the outfield.
Coming into Tuesday’s game, Tomas led all National League rookies with a .314 average, and was two hits behind rookie league-leader Kris Bryant of the Cubs in hits.
At the same time, La Russa expressed the need to acquire talent to fill in gaps, and possibly apply talents acquired for the long-term.
Here, the acquisition of Castillo was intelligent.
With not much of a chance to play for the Cubs and also in Seattle, Castillo, coveted by the Diamondbacks since last spring training, has stepped in, handled the pitching staff admirably, and chipped in with a .275 average. That includes eight extra base among his 14 hits to date in Sedna Red.
While the Diamondbacks position in third place within the division maybe surprising, this is not a reality which requires much dissection.
La Russa, as a dominant baseball personality, has taken control, weeded out the dead wood and pushed Hale and players in a situation to be successful.
Going forward into the second half and through the challenging weeks of August, the Diamondbacks’ overall quest to be successful lay in their collective desire and execution to play consistent baseball.
“There are times that we played well, and other nights, we have not come back,” said Goldschmidt. “We need to play consistent baseball. For us to win, it will take every player in this clubhouse and others not here. With injuries and personnel decision, it takes close to 35, 40 guys to be successful. If anything, we need to be more consistent.”