Counted out? Defying expectations would be nothing new for the Diamondbacks

NEW YORK – Torey Lovullo walked to the Citi Field mound Thursday while Mets fans celebrated a Juan Lagares grand slam that had all but ended this game. This was not a trip Lovullo planned to make in the third inning of a critical game, but the Diamondbacks, the hottest team in MLB entering the series, had just fallen behind by six runs.

He removed his starter, Alex Young, then watched another six-plus innings of uninspiring baseball in an 11-1 loss before finally escaping New York.

“This is a tough series. We came here feeling pretty good about ourselves and got socked in the face. Got our asses kicked,” Lovullo said. “Turn the page.”

Before the first pitch of this series had been thrown, the Diamondbacks had won 11 of 13. Now, after a four-game sweep, they are losers of five straight games.

They are 3.5 games back in the National League’s tight second wild card race with only 15 games to play, leaving them in that familiar spot of trying to defy the odds.

They were counted out in the offseason after trading Paul Goldschmidt and losing Patrick Corbin in free agency, and yet again after trading Zack Greinke in July. Despite losing all that talent, these anonymous Diamondbacks have persevered to stay afloat at 75-72. That toughness will be needed again in these last two-plus weeks if they’re to overcome these dreadful four days in Flushing.

“We have 15 games to make the playoffs. Who cares what happened? Forget it,” reliever Archie Bradley said. “Everyone keep their heads up and let’s go play.”

Sep 11, 2019; New York City, NY, USA; Arizona Diamondbacks center fielder Ketel Marte (4) reacts after grounding out against the New York Mets during the fifth inning at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Meeting with the boss

It’s OK if you want to admit that you didn’t expect the Diamondbacks would be playing meaningful games in September.

You’re not the only one.

The Diamondbacks were not a sexy pick after they traded Goldschmidt to the Cardinals and let Corbin leave for the Nationals in free agency. Sure, this roster had some nice pieces, but no one confused it with the Dodgers’ collection of talent. Arizona seemed stuck in that area no team wants to be in: They weren’t tanking, but they weren’t exactly doing all they could to win.

They seemed like a team destined to win 75-85 games.

“To be honest with you, it pissed me off when people would talk about us finishing .500 because I believed in this team so I was taking that personally,” Lovullo said before his team got swept out of New York. “I think this group did too.”

For most of the year, that .500 projection seemed right. The Diamondbacks even set an MLB record by spending the most days within two games of .500. Then, the outlook turned bleaker when they traded Greinke to the Astros on deadline day, during an eventual loss to the Yankees that dropped them to 54-55.

Arizona did add rookie Zac Gallen and the veteran Mike Leake to help fill the rotational void created by the trade, but you can’t just replace Greinke. He’s that good.

“Anytime you lose a pitcher like (Greinke), you feel like, OK, we’re not going to compete, but this team took it like, OK, our best pitcher is out, but we still have a lot of players here to win games,” said infielder Wilmer Flores, an offseason addition. “We’ve been taking it one day at a time and it’s been great.”

Several players credited a meeting they had with general manager Mike Hazen upon returning to Phoenix with helping them stay upbeat.

“It was basically, ‘Sorry I got rid of your ace, I know you guys aren’t going to be happy about it and I still believe in this team,’” Leake said.

“Like, man, it’s nice to feel that belief and that support behind you,” Bradley added.

He let them know he still had high hopes for the current roster, even as many thought the Diamondbacks were looking to the future.

“Or, basically, ‘Call my bluff if you don’t think we have a competitive team,’” Leake said.

Sep 3, 2019; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Carson Kelly (18) and relief pitcher Archie Bradley (25) celebrate after closing out the game against the San Diego Padres at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

Putting it all together

Perhaps the one upside of hanging around .500 for so long is Arizona never truly fell out of a wild card race in which all the contenders are flawed. Arizona initially went 10-11 after trading Greinke, but on Aug. 25, it all changed.

A team whose play had been defined by mediocrity suddenly couldn’t lose. Arizona reeled off six straight wins — ending its stay of being within two games of .500 — and won 11 of 12 games to pull within 1.5 games of a playoff spot before this recent skid.

MVP candidate Ketel Marte, enjoying a career year, hit .476 with a 1.392 OPS during those 12 games, and the offense averaged 5.67 runs per game.

The pitchers, meanwhile, yielded just 3.33 runs per game in that time.

“It’s just believing in ourselves,” Flores said. “When you see our lineup, we don’t intimidate anybody. We’re not intimidating. We just go out there and start hitting homers and scoring runs. Our starting pitching lately has done a great job and keeps us in the game. With our offense and the pitching, we’ll keep winning.”

Lovullo credited the veteran leaders, including Eduardo Escobar and Adam Jones, for ensuring the clubhouse remained motivated.

“When you have a lot of frustrating moments, sitting around .500, there’s bound to be a turn that leads you own a dark road, but that never happened here,” Lovullo said Monday. “This group believed in themselves and believed in one another, and go out and perform for one another and to me that is what stood out from day one.”

Sep 12, 2019; New York City, NY, USA; New York Mets center fielder Juan Lagares (12) hits a grand slam home run during the third inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Gregory J. Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Still in the race

The first two losses in New York featured the Diamondbacks coming up short offensively. The next two days, their starters put them in early deficits of six and five runs, and the hitters didn’t make an appearance either.

“We got our butts kicked,” shortstop Nick Ahmed said.

The Mets dominated Arizona in every facet of the series, leaving Arizona’s chances of making the playoffs at just 2 percent, according to FanGraphs. The saving grace for Arizona could be the schedule. They will play 12 of their final 15 games at home, and only one series will pit them against a team in playoff contention.

The world is probably counting out Arizona again, but at this point, the Diamondbacks are used to it. They weren’t supposed to be here, not after three elite talents left the organization, but here they are with a chance to sneak into the playoffs.

While the clubhouse was quiet after Thursday’s loss and the subsequent team meeting, the Diamondbacks weren’t planning for a quiet flight home. They planned to laugh. Have fun. Play music. Relax.

They still have a shot, and sometimes, that’s all you need.

“We don’t have time to feel sorry for ourselves or reflect on this,” Bradley said. “We need to go back home and pick back up where we were a couple of days ago.

“We got 15 left. Ride it out, see what we can do.”

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