Wednesday August 17th, 2011

PHILADELPHIA -- The story of how the (National League) West is won each year isn't a wild country tale of outlaws brandishing six-shooter guns or three-run homers but of bats corralled by a posse of pitchers.

Run prevention is up and scoring is down across baseball this year, but the greatest practitioners thereof have long resided in the NL West, where six of the last seven division winners scored the fewest runs of any the game's six division champs from the same season; the misfit winner ranked fifth of six in runs.

Twice those NL West title winners were Padres teams steered by general manager Kevin Towers, the man aptly nicknamed "Gunslinger" by his former boss. Last September he took over the reigns of an all-hit, no-pitch Diamondbacks franchise that was about to finish a 97-loss season and has started to rebuild them to his liking by creating more balance. So far it's worked: Arizona, which last reached the playoffs in 2007, is on a seven-game winning streak and unexpectedly leads the division by 3 ½ games, an advantage it is now favored to hold onto given the declining state of the Giants' offense.

"We really tried to focus on the back end of the bullpen and didn't go out and do a trade or sign for a big bat," Towers said Tuesday. "We really addressed our pitching and our bench. I think the pitching is a big reason why we are where we are today."

The first bold stroke of Towers' tenure in Arizona came last December when he traded third baseman Mark Reynolds, the third baseman who led the club in home runs and the world in strikeouts the three previous seasons, to Baltimore for two unheralded relievers. One of them, Kam Mickolio, has wallowed most of the year in the minors, but the other, David Hernandez, has been a versatile relief ace, saving 11 games and notching 17 holds over 54 innings while supporting closer J.J. Putz, who has 30 saves of his own. In turn the Diamondbacks' bullpen has gone from a weakness into a strength.

Indeed, Arizona's relievers -- who had a major-league-worst 5.74 ERA last year and who saved only 59.3 percent of opportunities -- have shaved two runs off that ERA to 3.76 and have converted 78.2 percent of their save opportunities. The Diamondbacks are 63-0 when leading after eight innings.

"I like power as much as anybody, but I don't like walking out of the ballpark after blowing a lead in the bottom of the ninth inning," Towers said.

Any trepidation that the offense would be dismantled by the trade of Reynolds and the decision to let first baseman Adam LaRoche leave via free agency proved to be unfounded. Towers subtracted their 57 home runs from the lineup but also their 383 strikeouts, a quarter of Arizona's league-record 1,529 whiffs. He found an unlikely source of power in infielder Ryan Roberts (16 home runs this year after hitting just 10 in parts of five seasons coming into the year) and hired as hitting coach Don Baylor, a former AL MVP who has helped extract a career year out of 23-year-old franchise player Justin Upton.

As a result, the vaunted Diamondbacks offense that last year hit 180 homers and scored 713 runs is on pace, through 122 games, to improve both numbers to 182 homers and 742 runs, while cutting the number of strikeouts to 1,260. They're doing all this while reducing the runs they're allowing -- in 2010 they gave up 836 but are on pace to yield only 705 this season.

It's a deliberate movement to join the rest of the NL West, where the teams that play in extreme pitcher-friendly parks (three -- the Padres, Dodgers and Giants) outnumbers the teams that play in extreme hitter-friendly parks (two -- Rockies and D-backs).

"In the past we were probably the best hitting team [in the division], but this year we tried to even each side," Upton said. "I didn't think we were going to be as strong as we've showed offensively. A lot of guys have stepped up -- [Miguel] Montero, Ryan Roberts. We have a lot of solid guys. We don't have the big boppers like we did last year, but I think everybody's doing their part."

Not all scouts are sold that the Diamondbacks' lineup is more than one star (Upton) and a bunch of role players but, thanks to so many of them concurrently having career seasons, the club still leads the league in extra-base hits and ranks third in runs. Some credit surely goes to Baylor, whose long career includes guiding several notable young players to make major improvements under his watch, including Gary Sheffield with the Brewers, Carlos Gonzalez last year with the Rockies and now Upton, whose star-level production makes him an NL MVP candidate.

Upton leads the NL in doubles (34) and total bases (261) and is on pace to set personal bests in average (.305), on-base percentage (.378), slugging (.561) and home runs (currently 25, which is one shy of his previous high of 26). He is also on pace to cut his strikeouts from 152 to 126, which would be his fewest since 2008 even though he's also on track for a career high in plate appearances with 695, which would obliterate his previous mark of 588.

"I never really talked to them about it, about their strikeouts and the record they had last year," Baylor said. "We didn't go to spring training to talk about strikeouts. The only thing we talked about was to put the ball in play more and to stay in the middle of the field more. If we don't think about pull, pull, pull, we're not going to strike out as much."

And the hitters don't need to press as much at the plate, as the pitching staff is now capable of finishing games.

"Now when we have a lead in the seventh," Montero said, "we know the guys coming in are going to do a good job."

Remarkably, the bullpen hasn't just been remade since last season, but it's also been overhauled since Opening Day. Of the seven relievers who broke spring training on the big league roster, only three remain (Putz, Hernandez and lefthanded specialist Joe Paterson) as Micah Owings and Bryan Shaw, fresh from the minors, have assumed significant roles, as has trade acquisition Brad Ziegler.

Two starters are new, too, as rookie Josh Collmenter has taken over the No. 4 spot behind Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson and Joe Saunders, while Triple-A call-up Wade Miley, who will debut on Saturday, is the latest to take a stab at holding down the fifth starter's job. Kennedy and Hudson have been among the game's most effective, yet least known, 1-2 combinations. Kennedy, a former first-round pick of the Yankees, is 15-3 with a 3.12 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP that ranks seventh in the league; Hudson, who was acquired from the White Sox for started Edwin Jackson, is 12-8 with a 3.76 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk rate (3.47 K/BB) that ranks ninth in the NL.

Towers, who was hired last September, made a point to credit his predecessors for bequeathing to him a core of position players to build around -- Upton, Montero, centerfielder Chris Young, shortstop Stephen Drew, leftfielder Gerardo Parra and the top three starters are all 20-somethings under contract through at least 2012 -- and especially thanked interim GM Jerry DiPoto, who has remained with the team as senior vice president for scouting and player development., for starting the process of improving the team's pitching.

DiPoto traded Dan Haren to the Angels for Saunders and two of the team's top-10 prospects, lefthanded pitchers Tyler Skaggs and Patrick Corbin. They are joined by two even higher-ceiling starters, Jarrod Parker, who returned after having Tommy John surgery last season, and Trevor Bauer, the UCLA pitcher selected No. 3 overall in June.

All of their pitchers benefit from the majors' best defensive outfield, as Parra, Upton and Young all rank among the top six outfielders, according to Ultimate Zone Rating.

There's been a change in clubhouse culture, too, thanks to the no-nonsense approach of manager Kirk Gibson, who took over on an interim basis for the final three months of last season and was extended in the offseason. He didn't appreciate the overly relaxed feel before game's last year and sought to stamp it out.

The managerial press sessions at the winter meetings typically aren't hard-hitting interviews and are generally more relaxed conversations about a franchise's plans for the upcoming season, yet there was Gibson this past December, when asked about his team's clubhouse, dropping a curse word into the proceedings, denouncing what he saw as "bulls---."

When asked on Tuesday when he thought the underdog Diamondbacks -- who lost at least 92 games each of the past two seasons and were 15-22 on May 13 -- had a turning point toward contention, a stone-faced Gibson replied, "The first day of spring training."

Said Roberts, "Everybody wanted to win but didn't take it as hard when we lost. We kind of accepted losing, which you can't blame anybody for doing that. Whenever you have two losing seasons, it's kind of hard to get out of. That mentality is tough to break. When they brought in the whole new staff and all the new people, we broke that cycle and now we're on the right track."

Arizona proceeded to shake off that rough start by winning 18 of its next 22 games, which only further improved the attitude of the club beyond the role that Gibson and his new staff have played.

"I think, on top of that, playing winning baseball for more than a week at a time changes the culture of the clubhouse," Upton said.

The winning has followed the pitching, which in Arizona is an awfully wild idea.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.