The 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks Ride The Stars To A Title

The 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks were an organization in the midst of change. Arizona had won the NL West two years earlier, its first taste of success since the franchise’s founding in 1993. They lost in the Division Series to the New York Mets that year, and missed the postseason the following, although they still won 85 games in 2000. Nonetheless, Buck Showalter, who essentially built the franchise for success, was gone and Bob Brenly took his place.

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The D-Backs had an everyday lineup heavily reliant on two players and then using strong depth to fill in around them. Luis Gonzalez hit .325 and smashed 57 home runs, while Reggie Sanders hit 33 home runs. The left and right fielders were the only players to hit more than 20 long balls, much less 30, and Gonzalez was the everyday lineup’s only .300 hitter.

Nonetheless, the team got steady contributions from Mark Grace at first base, Jay Bell at second, Tony Womack at short, Matt Williams at third and Steve Finley in center. The bench had quality players in Craig Counsell, Danny Bautista, Eurbiel Durazo and David Dellucci, all of whom would make big contributions in the postseason, as well has posting high numbers of at-bats and good on-base percentages in the 162-game grind.

When it came to being top-heavy and built on two big stars though, the everyday lineup had nothing on the pitching staff. Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson were each at the peak of their careers in 2001, with Johnson in the midst of his four straight Cy Young seasons and Schilling more overpowering than he’d even been with the Philadelphia Phillies in his prior life, or even what he would be in Boston where he helped win two World Series.

The two pitchers each won 20 games, they each logged about 250 innings and they finished 1-2 in the Cy Young voting, with Johnson winning it. It was a big dropoff from these two to Brian Anderson or Albie Lopez, other regular parts of the rotation. And while the bullpen was respectable, including spot starter Miguel Batista and closer Byun-Hung Kim, who had 19 saves with a 2.94 ERA, it was clear Schilling and Johnson had to dominate or Arizona wouldn’t be championship-caliber.

It was May and June that saw the Diamondbacks play their best baseball of the regular season. During these two months and nudging into early July they went on a 38-20 run that helped build a six-game lead in the NL West. A brief hiccup before and after the All-Star break tightened the division back up though and on July 27 Arizona fell behind the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Dodgers would eventually fade, although the San Francisco Giants, led by Barry Bonds’ steroid-driven 73-home run season that set a new single-season record, would be in the hunt the whole way. On August 11, Arizona reclaimed first for good, ripped off a nine-game winning streak and finally clinched on the final Friday of the season with three games to play.

At 92-70 they hadn’t overwhelmed anyone during the regular season. But baseball observers know that while the regular season is often defined by depth, especially in the starting rotation, playoff baseball is defined by star power—especially in the starting rotation. And simple math told you teams had to find a way to beat Schilling or Johnson if they were going to win a postseason series.

The St. Louis Cardinals were the opponent in the Division Series. The Cardinals won 93 games and were co-champs of the NL Central with Houston, but a tiebreaker handed the seeding preference to the Astros, so the Cards were seeded #4 and Arizona got homefield advantage. They also had the Schilling advantage, as the big righthander went the distance and struck out nine in a 1-0 win to start the series.

But St. Louis did what they had to do in Game 2. This was a lineup that was powered by centerfielder Jim Edmonds, who’d hit 30 home runs and a rookie by the name of Albert Pujols, who had an OBP of .403 and blasted 37 home runs.  The Cards were further fortified by then-25-year-old J.D. Drew in right, with a .414 OBP and .613 slugging percentage. They were stacked and Pujols got to Johnson with a two-run blast in the first inning of Game 2, the Cards added a single run in the third and then squelched a rally by Arizona in the eighth, when they had second and third with one out, but got just one run and Gonzalez grounded out to end the inning.

Game 3 is always big in a best-of-five series, but this one had added weight. It was unlikely that Arizona would let the Cards get away with not having to face Schilling again, but if the Diamondbacks lost Game 3 it would mean both aces would have to go on three days’ rest to win the series.

Batista got the ball and delivered a clutch effort. Edmonds got to him for a two-run shot, but Gonzalez hit one of his own in the sixth and Diamondback depth came through late. Gregg Colbrunn pinch-hit and tied the game with a base hit in the seventh, and then Counsell hit a three-run homer with two outs. Though St. Louis beat Lopez 4-1 in the fourth game, Arizona was where it wanted to be—they were at home and had a fully rested Schilling for the decisive fifth game.

Schilling was every bit as advertised, again going all nine innings, and again striking out nine. When Sanders homered in the fourth, it looked like the big fella might make it stand up. But the Arizona offense never added to the lead and you only hold back St. Louis so long. After 16 2/3 innings of trying to hit Schilling, Drew connected with a game-tying home run in the eighth. They also got Edmonds to second base in the ninth, before consecutive strikeouts gave Arizona’s offense a chance.

In the bottom of the ninth, Williams doubled down the line and was pinch-run for by speedy Midre Cummings, who was bunted over to third. After an intentional walk, Brenly went for a squeeze play. It blew up, as Cummings was nailed, although the runner moved to second base. It enabled Womack to deliver the game-winning hit to left. It wasn’t the last time Schilling would be in a big pitcher’s battle in a decisive game, nor the last time Womack would deliver an enormous hit after some failed execution.

When thinking back on the 2001 Arizona season, the Division Series with St. Louis and the World Series with the Yankees tend to overshadow the National League Championship Series battle with Atlanta. With good reason, because the Diamondbacks owned this series.

Game 1 was a good battle between Johnson and Atlanta’s Greg Maddux. Counsell gave Johnson a lead by first singling and coming around, then later drilling a two-out RBI double and ultimately scoring again. Arizona led 3-2 in the ninth when Johnson struck out Atlanta’s Brian Jordan with two on and two out. Atlanta came back and won the second game 8-1 breaking open the game against Batista in the sixth inning.

At this point there was every reason to think we’d have a barnburner of a series as the teams traveled to Atlanta. The Braves were similar to Arizona in that they had two players who clearly stood above the rest of the pack in the everyday lineup—third baseman Chipper Jones and centerfielder Andruw Jones, both in the prime of their baseball lives. Then it was pitching, with Maddux and Tom Glavine anchoring the rotation.

For all the great pitchers in this series, none produced in big games like Schilling, and he did so again in Game 3. For the third straight time in October he delivered a complete game, this time striking out 12 and Arizona’s offense was again sparked by Counsell who singled to start a rally in the third and the D-Backs won 5-1. Arizona was halfway to a pennant, and still had Johnson ahead for Game 5 and Schilling one more time.

They were in command, and it got even easier in Saturday’s Game 4 when the offense opened up. After Chipper and Andruw each homered to stake the Braves to a 2-0 lead off Lopez, the D-Backs started peppering away with singles, capitalizing on Braves’ defensive miscues—including a bases loaded boot by Chipper at third—and the final scored ended up 11-4.

If Arizona could score 11 runs when Atlanta had Maddux on the mound and an early lead, was there anything left that could stop them? Not this weekend. Johnson and Glavine staged a good duel on Sunday, but depth came through again in the lineup. It was Durazo hitting a two-run shot in the fifth to give Johnson a 3-1 lead. And just like Game 1, the tall lefty known as the Big Unit, struck out Brian Jordan in a huge situation in the seventh, with two outs and the bases loaded. The game ended 3-2 and for the first—and thus far only time—the Arizona Diamondbacks were going to the World Series to face the New York Yankees.

It may seem hard to believe today, but at the end of 2001, there was an outpouring of national sympathy for the Yankees and their run through the American League playoffs had been celebrated by people not normally accustomed to cheering on Pinstripes. Such was the world in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Even from a  purely baseball standpoint, this seemed an improbable run for New York—while the ’01 Yanks won 102 games and were much better than the team that had won the World Series the previous year, the top of the American League was extremely good. New York needed the immortalized “Jeter Flip” to survive Oakland, where Derek Jeter running across the diamond saw an errant relay throw, and used the back of his glove to flip the ball to Jorge Posada at catcher and nail Jason Giambi at the plate—preventing the tying run from scoring in an elimination game. T

Then the Yanks dismantled the 116-win Seattle Mariners to win their fourth straight American League pennant. They had won the Series each year from 1998-2000 and the dynasty looked to extend itself one more year.

New York had the top-end pitching to compete with Arizona. While only Roger Clemens was arguably in the class of Schilling or Johnson, Mussina and Andy Pettite were capable of matching up and the Yanks had one more elite starter than Arizona did.

Offensively though, this was not a good Yankee team. Players like Scott Brosius at third and Paul O’Neill in right were at the end of the line and the lineup depended heavily on Jeter, Bernie Williams and Posada, while getting some on-base help from Chuck Knoblauch and power from Tino Martinez.

Schilling remained locked in for Game 1. The Yankees scored first, with Williams doubling in Jeter, but Counsell, fresh off his NLCS MVP award immediately answered with a solo home run, the Yanks never scored again and Mussina knuckled under by the fourth, touched for a two-run shot by Gonzalez, a bases-loaded doubled by Grace and a key error by Brosius to turn the game into a 9-1 rout.

The Big Unit came back and went all nine for Game 2. An early run gave Arizona the lead, Johnson was collaring the Yankee hitters and a three-run shot by Williams in the seventh opened the game up and gave the Diamondbacks a 4-0 win. They were riding high, but now they had to go Yankee Stadium for three games, two of which would not see their ace on the mound.

Whatever people’s politics were or are, the United States was happy to see President George W. Bush on the mound for Friday’s Game 3. A president throwing out a first ball is nothing new, but for this to happen in New York City right after 9/11 was seen as a cathartic symbol that even minor American traditions would not be altered by terror threats. If we fast forward the clock ten years, it was surely no less cathartic for those in Philadelphia for a Sunday Night baseball telecast of the Phillies and Mets—ironically another New York team—to hear the “U.S.A…U.S.A” chants reverberate through the stands and find out the reason was that a raid ordered by Bush’s successor, President Obama, had successfully killed Osama bin Laden.

Arizona got the starting pitching it needed in Game 3, as Anderson gamely battled Clemens. Posada and Matt Williams traded home runs and it was tied in the sixth, when an infield hit and wild pitch set up an RBI single from Brosius for the run that Clemens made stand up.

If Game 3 was inspiring, Games 4 & 5 took Yankee Stadium lore into the realm of the eerie. Perhaps it was Schilling to blame. Before the teams came east, the pitcher was asked about the mystique and aura of playing in Yankee Stadium. He replied that “Mystique and Aura are the names of dancers at a nightclub. They are not things we concern ourselves with on a ballfield.”

Schilling’s pitching, even on short rest, was still laser sharp in Game 4 and when Durazo hit a two-run double in the eighth, Arizona had a 3-1 lead and looked ready to take the same lead in games. Kim came on to close it out. The Yanks had a man on and two outs. Tino Martinez hit a game-tying home run and then in the 10th, Jeter won it with a home run of his own.

The series was tied and the Yanks had Mussina on the mound to face Batista. But the Arizona starter was game and when Steve Finley and backup catcher Rod Barajas each homered, the D-Backs had a 2-0 lead going into the ninth. Kim came in to close it out. The Yanks had a man on and two outs. Scott Brosius hit a game-tying home run.

Arizona had another chance in the 11th when they loaded the bases with one out against Mariano Rivera, but Reggie Sanders’ line drive found the glove of second baseman Alfonso Soriano. In the bottom of the 12th, Soriano, who’d yet to fully embark on his career as an overpaid defensive liability who wouldn’t take a walk to save his life, then won the game with an RBI single.

The World Series had started late this year, after a one-week break in play after 9/11, so we were into the first weekend of November by now. Fortunately, warm desert weather awaited. And the Arizona bats heated up. While Johnson pitched well in winning Game 6, the Diamondbacks nailed Pettite with fourteen hits in the first three innings, ten of them singles, the other four doubles. The sustained peppering made the game 12-0 after three and my plans to watch the game over pizza with a friend turned dull awfully quick. The series was now set for a Game 7 and it was Schilling-Clemens to settle it.

Game 7 was one of the great baseball games every played, and the magnitude of the starting pitchers only enhanced the moment. Arizona threatened, but failed to score in the third and fourth innings. Finally in the sixth, the home team broke through with Bautista delivering an RBI double, but with no one out was gunned trying to stretch it to a triple.

The Yanks tied it in the top of the seventh. Jeter and O’Neil singled to start the rally and a base hit Martinez tied it. With one out, Schilling bore down and got Posada and Shane Spencer to keep the game tied. But he wasn’t as lucky in the eighth, when Soriano hit a solo home run. Rivera came in from the pen and struck out the side in the bottom of the inning. New York was three outs away.

Schilling had needed to be pinch-hit for and Brenly fired all his bullets. Johnson came in and pitched the ninth, keeping it a 2-1 game. Then Grace singled to lead off the ninth. A sac bunt was botched by Rivera and the D-Backs had two on with none out and the crowd had hope.

The next bunt down didn’t work. Rivera got the lead runner at third and to this day, Yankee players believe that Brosius got overly conservative in not going for the double play at first. For Arizona, the failure to execute wasn’t on a par with the botched squeeze against St. Louis, but it did now mean it would take a base hit to score the tying run, not a productive out.

Enter Tony Womack. Just as he did against St. Louis, Womack delivered, smacking a double down the rightfield line, tying the game and leaving runners on second and third. Now a productive out would work—indeed it would win the game, so Yankee manager Joe Torre did the correct thing and brought the infield in.

The correct move didn’t work in this case, because the blooper hit by Gonzalez would’ve been caught by Jeter positioned at normal depth. Pulled in, it got over his head, landed in shallow left and the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks had won the World Series.

It was a breathtaking end to the baseball season—and if you want to read about it from the losing side, Buster Olney’s The Last Night Of The Yankee Dynasty is one of the great baseball books of the modern age, a fitting tribute to one of the great baseball games of all-time.