Back at Ya! Renewed resolve and a cool rookie skipper have Arizona primed for an all-out stretch drive

July 29, 2001

If the Arizona Diamondbacks had stayed in California any longer,
state officials concerned about rolling blackouts might have
begun using them as an auxiliary energy source. There was a
surplus of electricity everywhere the Diamondbacks went during a
five-day swing through the Golden State, beginning on July 18
when a bank of lights malfunctioned at Qualcomm Stadium in San
Diego, spewing flames and smoke and causing the suspension of
Arizona's game with the Padres. Then came electrifying pitching
performances from aces Randy Johnson last Thursday against San
Diego and Curt Schilling last Saturday at Pac Bell Park against
the San Francisco Giants. They were followed on Sunday by a
bench-clearing dustup between the Diamondbacks and the Giants
that was more highly charged than most. "I might have preferred a
little quieter week, but I'll take it," Arizona manager Bob
Brenly said. "We're still headed in the right direction."

That's more than the Diamondbacks could say a year ago at this
time, when they were very much like that bank of lights at
Qualcomm: a high-voltage unit that wasn't wired quite right.
Arizona, which had won the National League West in 1999 and held
a 3 1/2-game lead at the All-Star break last season, was plagued
by clubhouse grumbling in the second half of 2000. The team
short-circuited, going 34-40 and dropping to third place, 12
games behind division champion San Francisco.

This season the Diamondbacks reached the break with the same
3 1/2-game lead, but after going 6-5 on a tough road trip that
concluded with 9-2 and 12-4 thrashings of the Giants last
weekend, they were 57-41 and appeared unlikely to repeat last
year's nosedive. Arizona may not leave the rest of the division
choking on its exhaust--the sizzling Los Angeles Dodgers had
closed to within 1 1/2 games, while third-place San Francisco was
5 1/2 behind--but the Diamondbacks insist they won't shift into
reverse, either. "If anybody's going to catch us, they're going
to have to come get us," says lefthander Brian Anderson. "We're
not going to make it easy for them this time."

Arizona clearly has the talent to hold off its pursuers.
Lefthander Johnson (12-5, 2.70 ERA through Sunday) and
righthander Schilling (14-4, 2.97) have been equally dominant.
Leftfielder Luis Gonzalez is having a career year (.345, 38
homers, 94 RBIs) and may add an MVP award to the Home Run Derby
title he won during the All-Star Game festivities. First baseman
Mark Grace, a lifetime .308 hitter who joined the Diamondbacks
this season as a free agent after 13 years with the Chicago Cubs,
has returned to form (.326) after sinking to .280 last year. The
most significant difference from last season, though, is Brenly,
the first-year manager whose light touch has been a welcome
change from Buck Showalter's micromanaging.

By the time Showalter was fired one day after the end of last
season, the stories of how he carried his attention to detail to
absurd lengths--including his insistence that the A on the
players' socks be completely visible--had been well circulated.
These days Arizona players would sooner face a headhunter without
a batting helmet than discuss the Showalter era, but they don't
hesitate to praise Brenly for his managerial style. "He
understands this is a situation that doesn't need overmanaging,"
says Schilling. "He allows us to relax and concern ourselves only
with our performance, and we've made sure not to abuse the
freedom he's given us. When it comes to our job, this is a very
serious-minded club."

Still, the club is not so serious about anything else. With so
many veterans--Gonzalez, Grace, Johnson, Schilling, centerfielder
Steve Finley and third baseman Matt Williams all have at least 11
years in the majors--the Diamondbacks are wise in the ways of
clubhouse pranks and needling. Flattering feature stories about
any Arizona player will be read aloud by a teammate to the hoots
and catcalls of the rest of the team. After Gonzalez won the Home
Run Derby, a friend of his made up dozens of T-shirts that
proclaimed Gonzo's championship. Without Gonzalez's knowledge a
T-shirt was placed on each player's chair in the clubhouse. The
more the exceedingly humble Gonzalez insisted he had nothing to
do with the shirts, the more his teammates ragged on him for
letting his success go to his head. "Do not screw up in any form
or fashion, because you will never hear the end of it on this
team," says Grace. "In fact, even if you do something right,
you'll never hear the end of it."

With vets ruling the clubhouse, Brenly would have the public
believe that the only thing he's done as manager is exercise
common sense. "Whatever Johnson, Schilling, Gonzalez, Grace,
Matty, Finley and most of these other guys have been doing for 10
or 12 years apparently works pretty well," he says. "They know
how to prepare and how to carry themselves, and they set the tone
for the younger guys. I don't have to police the clubhouse,
because I have veterans who take care of that."

However, the engaging Brenly (who for the past three seasons was
a TV analyst on the Diamondbacks' broadcast team and on Fox
Sports) does more than fill out the lineup card and fill up
reporters' notebooks. He was savvy enough to send the message to
his players that they were under a new, less restrictive regime
by calling a team meeting at the start of spring training, in
Tucson, during which he dropped last year's team rule book to the
floor, saying, "Those are the old rules." Then he pulled out a
cocktail napkin, saying, "These are the new rules." One of them
was a 1 a.m. curfew while in Tucson. "If any of you find anything
to do after 1 a.m. in Tucson," he said, "call the coaches. We'll
meet you."

That was the only team meeting the Diamondbacks had this season
until Brenly called a second one last week to try to snap the
club out of a hitting slump. Last Friday night his exhortations
had no effect--in a 1-0 loss Arizona got only three hits off San
Francisco righthander Livan Hernandez and three relievers. But on
Saturday and Sunday the Diamondbacks banged a total of 25 hits,
including six homers, among them a game-breaking seventh-inning
grand slam by pinch hitter David Dellucci and a three-run shot in
the eighth by Gonzalez on Saturday. "We'll be having team
meetings every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from now on," Brenly
joked after Sunday's game.

Brenly hasn't been infallible--after declaring during spring
training that he would make sure to keep Johnson's and
Schilling's arms strong for the stretch run, he inexplicably
allowed Johnson to throw 146 pitches against the Philadelphia
Phillies in May--but he has shown a remarkable ability to push the
right buttons and a willingness to make moves that aren't popular
with his stars. Against the Houston Astros on the Fourth of July,
he pinch-hit for Johnson in the seventh even though the Big Unit
had struck out 13 in his six innings. Pinch hitter Dellucci
drilled a two-out RBI single that drove in what turned out to be
the winning run in a 3-2 victory.

Johnson wasn't thrilled with being pulled from that game, but at
37 he's a believer in Brenly's plan to keep close tabs on his
pitch count. Johnson told The Arizona Republic that under
Showalter there were times when he would tell Mark Connor, the
pitching coach at the time, that he was ready to come out of the
game. "He would turn to [Showalter] and come back and ask me to
go one more inning," Johnson said.

Last season Johnson was 14-2 with a 1.80 ERA at the All-Star
break and 5-5, 3.81 after it. Schilling, whose arrival last July
in a trade with the Phillies was supposed to wrap up the division
for the Diamondbacks, was 5-6 with a 3.69 ERA with Arizona. Both
pitchers turned in performances last week that indicated they
will have to be reckoned with in the second half of this season.
Schilling pitched the first two innings against the Padres on
July 18 before the game was suspended because of the
malfunctioning lights. When the game resumed the next day Brenly
gave the ball to Johnson, who struck out 16 batters, a major
league record for a reliever, over the final seven innings of
Arizona's 3-0 win. Two days later Schilling came back to take a
no-hitter into the seventh and whiff 12 San Francisco batters,
including seven in a row.

"The guy throws 95 to 96 [mph], and a split, a slider, a
changeup and a curveball," said one victim, Giants rightfielder
Armando Rios, who broke up the no-hitter with a single. "You
don't know what to look for. You sit on something and pray for a
strike. Before he was overpowering. Now he's overpowering and he
can play with your head. He keeps you guessing all the time."

When Schilling and Johnson don't pitch, however, the Diamondbacks
might hope for more defective stadium lights. No other starter
has more than six wins, though Anderson (3-6, 4.52 ERA at week's
end), who has had a disappointing and injury-filled season, had
an encouraging outing on Sunday, throwing eight solid innings
(six hits, four earned runs). Two other righthanders, Miguel
Batista (5-6, 3.55) and 30-year-old rookie Robert Ellis (6-5,
5.56), have had their moments, but unless Arizona trades for
another starter before the July 31 deadline, the Diamondbacks
will be depending heavily on Anderson down the stretch.

When elbow surgery on June 19 sidelined closer Matt Mantei for
the season, the bullpen was left unsettled as well. Brenly has
expressed confidence in Mantei's replacement, 22-year-old righty
Byung-Hyun Kim, who at week's end was 7 for 8 in save
opportunities and had a mind-boggling 85 strikeouts in 63
innings. But Kim had also issued 30 walks, and he struggled in
the second half in each of his two previous years in the league.
That's why the Diamondbacks have been scouting closers Troy
Percival of the Anaheim Angels, Keith Foulke of the Chicago White
Sox and Jason Isringhausen of the Oakland A's, with an eye toward
a trade.

Brenly seems to favor going with Kim, partly because in any deal
Arizona would probably have to give up 26-year-old first baseman
Erubiel Durazo, who has been the most effective of a stellar
pinch-hitting group. Through Sunday, Durazo (with five) and
Dellucci had combined for nine of Arizona's 11 pinch homers, one
short of the major league record.

The club wouldn't miss Durazo's bat as much if the 35-year-old
Williams could find his stroke again and stay healthy. After
sitting out almost two months with left hamstring, quadriceps and
hip flexor woes, the oft-injured third baseman returned after the
break and at week's end was hitting .284 with six home runs and
27 RBIs. A former Giant, Williams showed signs of breaking out
over the weekend, when he punished his old team with a homer and
a single on Saturday and three more hits the next day. When he
came to the plate for the fourth time on Sunday, lefty reliever
Chad Zerbe buzzed a fastball behind Williams, and the 6'2",
219-pounder walked menacingly toward the mound with his bat.

Both benches cleared, and Williams and Giants manager Dusty
Baker, a close friend who calls Williams one of his favorite
players, began shouting and gesturing at each other. "He was
pointing his finger in my face," Baker said. "I'm not going to
take that, and I'm pretty sure he wouldn't take it, either.
That's a sign of aggression to me."

The league should get used to signs of aggression from the
Diamondbacks. Now that they've harnessed their power, anyone who
expects them to blow another fuse down the stretch may be in for
a shock.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Electric stuff After taking over in the suspended game at Qualcomm, Johnson was lights out in whiffing 16 Padres. COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Long Gonzo As he has done all season, Gonzalez supplied punch in San Francisco last Saturday, blasting a three-run shot. COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Comeback D-back Regaining his form, the oft-injured Williams showed a fighting spirit while putting a hurt on his former club.

Desert Heat

At week's end the Diamondbacks' pair of aces, lefthander Randy
Johnson and righthander Curt Schilling (above), had double-digit
strikeouts in 23 of their 42 total starts, including the 17 they
fanned in a combined one-hitter against the Padres on July 18 and
19. With Johnson ranked first in the National League in
strikeouts and Schilling second, the duo is bidding to become the
ninth set of teammates in the league to go one-two in the
category since 1900. --David Sabino

TEAM LEAGUE LEADER (K'S) RUNNER-UP (K'S)

2001 Diamondbacks Randy Johnson (225*) Curt Schilling (180*)
1990 Mets David Cone (233) Dwight Gooden (223)
1987 Astros Nolan Ryan (270) Mike Scott (233)
1962 Dodgers Don Drysdale (232) Sandy Koufax (216)
1961 Dodgers Sandy Koufax (269) Stan Williams (205)
1960 Dodgers Don Drysdale (246) Sandy Koufax (197)
1924 Dodgers Dazzy Vance (262) Burleigh Grimes (135)
1920 Cubs Grover Alexander (173) Hippo Vaughn (131)
1905 Giants Christy Mathewson (206) Red Ames (198)
1903 Giants Christy Mathewson (267) Joe McGinnity (171)

*Through Sunday

"If anybody's going to catch us, they're going to have to
come get us," says Anderson.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)