The Arizona Diamondbacks have been like the horse who hangs back and hangs back as the race in front of the develops. The spectating public isn’t watching them when two horses (in this case Los Angeles & San Francisco) are running neck-and-neck ahead of them. Then suddenly the horse hanging back gets the inside rail and makes a hard push. That’s exactly what the Diamondbacks have done, as a sweep of the Dodgers this week pulled them to within two games of the lead in the NL West.
On July 15, Arizona had finished being swept by the Chicago Cubs in Wrigley to open the second half and a four-game series in Cincinnati that threatened to bury them was ahead. But Arizona managed a split against the otherwise blazing hot Reds, and then came home and started their push. A nine-game homestand against Colorado, Houston and the New York Mets produced a 7-2 record. In the meantime, the Dodgers swept the Giants and enabled both Arizona and Los Angeles to move up the standings at a time when Frisco was threatening to open up some space. Then Arizona turns right around and delivers the aforementioned sweep of LA. The sequence of NL West matchups could not have gone any better for Kirk Gibson’s team, who made their division title push a year ago about this time and now threaten to do it again.
The downside to this Arizona hot streak is that is driven heavily by offense, especially hitting for power, which is the least sustainable attribute. Pitching and plate discipline never slump and while these have been strengths—and the reason I think Arizona is going to continue to play well, it’s the long ball that’s carrying the D-Backs. Jason Kubel hit 11 home runs in July alone, while Miguel Montero and Paul Goldschmidt popped four apiece. Goldschmidt’s pace will continue and might even improve, but Montero probably cools a little bit and I think it’s safe to say that Kubel won’t continue on a 66-HR pace.
But even if Arizona doesn’t score more runs than every other team in the National League, like they did in July, there’s no reason that can’t continue the kind of productivity that has them fifth in runs scored for the season as a whole. Aaron Hill is having a great year at second base. Chris Young, after being injured and then slumping in the first half, started to pick it up last month. Even though the batting average was just .227, the walks were up, as was the slugging percentage. I think Young’s best months are ahead of him, and I think the same can be said for Justin Upton and Stephen Drew. The D-Backs wisely held on to Upton at the trade deadline and even though he’s slugging just .394, he’s capable of the kind of hot streak that can carry a team for several weeks. Drew is finally back after ripping up his ankle in the summer of 2011, and though he is not hitting yet, the shortstop has just 88 at-bats under his belt. Give him some time to get into a groove and he’ll at least get on base consistently.
Arizona’s pitching improved a little bit this past month—the 8th best in National League ERA for the season, they were up to sixth if we focus strictly on July—and that small improvement is sustainable and can itself be improved on. The starting pitching was consistent, but nobody was in an unhittable zone. Gibson moved Josh Collmenter back into the rotation, where he posted a 3.00 ERA in four starts. The move enabled young Patrick Corbin go to the pen where his 2.08 ERA in July adds him to a pen that includes David Hernandez, Brad Ziegler and newly acquired Matt Albers, all of whom have ERAs under 3. They set the table for J.J. Putz, who has 19 saves and a 3.71 ERA, but is capable of doing more. Whomever is on the mound, Arizona is a comfortable sixth in the NL in cashing in its save opportunities.
What the Diamondbacks need is for Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill or Joe Saunders to really have a get-on-my-back and I’ll carry you kind of month. All have been respectable, but none have been outstanding—in fact 12-game winner Wade Miley has been Arizona’s best starter in 2012. If the vets can smell the stretch drive, Arizona’s going to be tough to stop.
The Dodgers and Giants made the big splashes at the trade deadline, but the same thing happened last year. All the talk in 2011 at this time was whether San Francisco’s acquisition of Carlos Beltran made them the team to beat in the NL as a whole. No one gave Arizona a second thought. Then the Diamondbacks charged up the inside rail and won the race going away. Even if the home run surge of July 2012 doesn’t continue, there’s no reason the winning surge can’t.