A little more than two weeks ago, the Arizona Diamondbacks' season seemed on the brink of unraveling.
The team had dropped six of its first seven games on a nine-game trip, and all the losses were by one run to division rivals San Diego, San Francisco and Los Angeles. After two straight last-place finishes in the National League West, it looked like another was looming.
The D-backs, though, won the final two games of the trip against the Dodgers and have lost just two of 17 games since as they've vaulted from fourth place to first place, one-half game ahead of the world champion Giants.Arizona has won seven straight games, 13 of its past 14 and 15 of 17.
It's a historic run. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the D-backs are the first team in Major League history to enter the month of May with at least a 6 1/2-game deficit in their league (pre 1969) or division (since 1969) and gain sole possession of first place during the month.
"Everybody is having a good time, one through 25," closer J.J. Putz said.
The Giants have lost for the season a huge offensive weapon in Buster Posey, the Rockies are reeling and the Dodgers have been saddled with multiple injuries. Suddenly the NL West pennant race seems wide open.
That's heady stuff for the D-backs -- a team that the past two years was effectively out of the postseason picture by June.
Arizona manager Kirk Gibson never lost faith in his team during the heartbreaking West Coast trip, pronouncing after the sixth straight one-run loss that he expected his team to turn around and win the next six one-run games.
In fact, they've won their past seven one-run games, the only team in baseball this year, according Elias, to lose at least six one-run games in a row and then win at least their next six one-run contests.
"He held it together after some of those one-run losses a heck of a lot better than I did," D-backs General Manager Kevin Towers said of Gibson. "He's been very, very steady and stayed the course. He never panicked and he stayed positive and I think the players have responded well to him."
After being hired with two weeks to go in the 2010 season, Towers spent the winter turning over the roster. He infused the clubhouse with veteran guys like Putz, Willie Bloomquist, Henry Blanco, Xavier Nady and Melvin Mora -- players that were known throughout the game as good influences.
The result is a team that has shown more character and resilience.
"Part of it is the group of guys here have grown up a little bit and know we want to win," said right fielder Justin Upton, who came up during August of 2007. "And I think the other part is the veterans they brought in. I mean, when we lost, you never saw Blanco or Putz or any of them change. To have the younger guys looking at those guys and Mora and see that they didn't change their approach, then you don't change, and you know it's going to be OK."
"It helps," 24-year-old starter Daniel Hudson said of the veteran presence. "Those guys have been through things before, and they've been where we want to go."
Known as a master bullpen builder during his 14-year tenure as GM of the Padres, Towers made retooling the bullpen one of his first priorities in the offseason. The additions of Putz, setup man David Hernandez and left-handed specialist Joe Paterson have helped, as have the improvement of Esmerling Vasquez and the performance of holdovers Aaron Heilman and Sam Demel.
Through 53 games last year, the bullpen's ERA was 7.51. This year, through the same number of games, it was 3.27, sixth in the NL. Putz has been perfect in save situations, and his 16 saves are the second most in the league.
"Close games have really been a big difference," center fielder Chris Young said. "J.J. has come in in a lot of big situations, and he's been getting it done."
The starters also have gotten the job done. Very few times this year has the team found itself out of a game in the early innings. Last year, through 54 games, the starters had a 4.85 ERA. This year it's 4.20.
Ian Kennedy (6-1, 3.01 ERA) has been the most consistent starter, while Hudson (6-5, 4.13) has pitched well, except for a couple of outings, and rookie Josh Collmenter (3-1, 1.49) has been a nice surprise addition in May. Add to that the improvement the last few times out of Joe Saunders, and the rotation has been better than expected.
"We may not be doing anything offensively in a particular game, but you look up in the fourth or fifth inning and it's only 1-0 or 0-0," second baseman Kelly Johnson said. "So it's like, 'OK we can overcome that.' You're just a run or two away rather than five or six like last year, and I think that gives everyone a lot of confidence."
Every club works on fundamentals during the spring, but Gibson was somewhat obsessive about it this year. For example, the pitchers spent hours going over pickoffs with the goal of adding a weapon to get out of jams.
At the same time, situational hitting was drilled into an offense that is without the firepower of third baseman Mark Reynolds and first baseman Adam LaRoche, but is also minus their strikeouts, a tradeoff that Towers was more than willing to make during the winter.
The result is a team that puts the ball in play more often -- the strikeout total is down more than 100 from this point last year -- and is 13-7 in one-run games. Rather than rely on one guy to carry the load -- no player is hitting over .300 -- there seems to be a different hero each night, and yet they are still third in the NL in runs scored.
Early in the season, Bloomquist sparked the team, and journeyman Ryan Roberts has been one of the D-backs' best hitters.
"As a whole, we've played good games and we've gotten better at the fundamental things," Young said. "The relievers have gotten better coming in and throwing strikes. We've gotten better at stealing bases and being aggressive on the bases at the right times and understanding that it's not about the long ball, it's about tacking on runs here and there, here and there."
While he talked up his club during its struggles a few weeks ago, Gibson downplays its current success. He doesn't want his players to get too comfortable and has scheduled early fundamental drills for a couple of days this week.
"There's nothing figured out here," Gibson said. "This is a work in progress. We've played well, yet we've been fortunate the way it's all come together as quickly as they've done this. We have to fight to continue to get better. We have to be humble."