Swoon Or Swagger
By Bob Goodwood
Modern Times Magazine
June 8, 2012 — With the end of May approaching, it was all too clear that the Arizona Diamondbacks were running out of time.
They were heading into a set of National League West battles against the San Diego Padres and Colorado Rockies and had played poorly enough through May to sit at 23-28 — 9.5 games back of the Los Angeles Dodgers. It wasn’t that the D-backs had played badly or were a bad team, but they just had not seemed to put together any combined performances. When the pitching was going well, the hitting was non-existent. Or, a fielder made an error at the wrong time — not when they are up by five, but up by one or trailing late in a ball game.
Basically, they had no luck, no magic, no mojo.
In 2011, the Arizona Diamondbacks were all about good mojo and a team of happy co-conspirators. No one expected them to win the division so when they went about doing so, it was fun and easy. Even when they failed, they got a reprieve.
This season, the expectation pendulum has swung the other way. If they do good things, they are doing what is expected, and when they fail, they are letting the universe down.
This is especially true in regards to the very broad shoulders of Justin Upton. He is the franchise. He has his own section — which was done entirely too young in this fragile superstar's career — and when he started slow and stayed inconsistent, the pressure became unbearable.
Eventually, the vessel burst when Kendrick went on the radio and pushed the idea that Justin Upton was inconsistent. Whispers then became roars when media blowhards over-hyped it.
All that happened was an owner said his highest priced player isn’t earning his salary. That was first done during the first contract — EVER. It is part of the game. Upton has not lost any of his skills. The kid is 24 and has not had a major injury. The numbers always level out unless he totally psyches himself out.
All winning baseball teams — and the Arizona Diamondbacks are no exception — rely on performances from all the guys on the 25-man roster. Some say it takes about 40 players to make a World Series. But the difference between a winning team and a losing team that has basically the same players with the same skill set is that winning teams have individuals who perform at the right time. That leads to base hits in bunches and starting pitchers who eat eight scoreless innings several times over the course of a few weeks.
Baseball is a game of inches and it is one thing to write about performing but doing it is a whole different ball of wax. A batter can rip a ball and have it clang off the wall for a single — as Ryan Roberts did the other night. Or, he can hit a screamer right to the centerfielder, where if it was 60 inches right or left, it might have been a triple.
A lot of it has to do with luck, with timing, with magic, with mojo.
Unfortunately, the 2012 Diamondbacks seem to be a bit short on the mojo. Chris Young starts out hot, then gets hurt. Upton hurts his thumb in the first series. Daniel Hudson goes down four weeks. Ian Kennedy loses his pinpoint control. Josh Collmenter becomes a long-reliever. Joe Saunders is thinking he is getting traded. Stephen Drew is cleared to play but hasn’t played. Ryan Roberts has struggled.
That’s a lot of bad mojo.
Some voodoo doctor must have released the hex he had put on the Los Angeles Dodgers while Frank McCourt owned the team. Since the sale of the Dodgers, any move the organization has made seems like a master stroke. Don Mattingly is doing his best “mad maestro” impersonation. Even without Matt Kemp, the Dodgers keep winning.
Maybe there just isn’t enough magic to go around the National League West.
But through the first week of June, the Arizona Diamondbacks team that everyone agree is not playing up to their potential is not out of it yet. The team is also showing signs that they will make a run before the fat lady sings.
The Ken Kendrick comment mini-saga is over and from the outside, it looks like it may have helped them find their identity.
Upton either was hurt, wasn’t playing well, or whatever, and Manager Kirk Gibson has put his integrity on the line when it comes to filling out the lineup. If he believes someone else gives him a better chance to win the ballgame because Justin Upton is not physically or mentally ready, he had to sit him. The rest of the team seemed to respond because all of these guys have been handled that way this year. Aaron Hill has had to share many more innings at second base than he would have liked with Ryan Roberts. Willie Bloomquist gets benched for John MacDonald. Ryan Roberts’ struggles has ceded time to Josh Bell. Jason Kubel has not played every day. The same thing goes for Chris Young, too. Paul Goldschmidt – even as he has been tearing the cover off of the ball for the last month — has been sat down in favor of Lyle Overbay.
The only guy that was gotten a bit of a break on that was Justin Upton. Until this week, that is.
And, like Gibson said Wednesday night, he is not making these decisions in a vacuum. He has a staff and the general manager and his staff have something to say about it, too. Kirk Gibson knows he is the manager and takes all of the rights of that position, but he also does not try to be a dictator. He knows that in order to have a winning organization, everyone has to be on the same page from the front office to the rookie ball manager.
But the worm might have started to turn a bit over the course of the six games against the Padres and Rockies. After blowing game one against the Padres, they won the next two. But something was clearly still missing when they came out as flat as a pancake in the first game against the Rockies. Joe Saunders looked like he was thinking about getting traded — he cried like baby when he got traded by the Los Angeles Angels. But the team still looked disjointed.
Then came Ken Kendrick’s comments on Drew and Upton.
While Upton sat, Jason Kubel, Chris Young, Aaron Hill, Willie Bloomquist and Gerardo Parra drove the offense to a 10-0 romp and Ian Kennedy threw six shutout innings followed by scoreless appearances by Collmenter and Mike Zagurski.
Upton sat again the next night and this time Paul Goldschmidt, Hill again and A.J. Pollock led the offense and Wade Miley dominated. Again.
The Arizona Diamondbacks can be a very good team, even without Justin Upton. But they can be a great team with him playing up to his potential. He needs to just relax and play the game. From the public comments made after the finale of the series with the Rockies, it seems like the team just might have gone through a catharsis and might have found a bit of their lost mojo.
Regardless, they will be getting some help by Chris Young getting back to his pre-injury self, and there will probably be a little magic in the next few weeks thanks to the young right-hander from UCLA — Trevor Bauer — who is banging on the door in AAA. All the Diamondbacks have to do is stay in the hunt, because it is definitely going to get interesting over the next eight weeks, or so.
Trades are inevitable, but any trade must make sure not to hurt the fragile psyche of a baseball team.
Even with the bad mojo, the D-backs are still only a meager five games back of the first Wild Card spot — trailing the Giants, by the way. There is still time to make that up and don’t forget that there are two Wild Card teams this year. The D-backs are one of eight teams within five games of each other that are seeking Wild Card berths, including the San Francisco Giants, Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals.
Heck, the division is still a possibility — remember the 2008 Colorado Rockies? — but one step at a time.
The fat lady definitely hasn’t begun to sing. Heck, she’s still skinny.
Come What May, D-backs
Oh the tangled webs that are woven,
When expectations’ promises are broken,
But trying becomes more than a token,
There’s always a fight in May.
The Diamondbacks entered the month awry,
No one seemed able to ascertain why,
But ignoring it did not determine on whom to rely,
Oh, the struggles of May.
Some did bring their talents to bear,
Miley and Goldschmidt went on a tear,
While Upton and Drew did repair,
Light and shadow come what May.
As the calendar turns from May to June,
Fans in the Valley hope to avoid a swoon,
Its not over yet, though it will be soon,
Especially if June ends like May.
Bob Goodwood lives in Scottsdale, Ariz. Reach him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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