How did the Arizona Diamondbacks do this?
How did an extreme underdog overthrow the seemingly inevitable Philadelphia Phillies to seize the NLCS? Goodness, the Diamondbacks opened the series by losing the first two games at Philly, getting outscored 15-3. And though they recovered to take two of the three games played in Arizona, the D–backs trailed in the series 3-2 when returning to Philadelphia. The team from the desert was in a menacing, must-win situation over the next 48 hours, needing to upset the imposing Phils in an overwhelmingly hostile setting. The mission: win two ballgames and escape to the airplane for a flight to Texas to compete in the World Series.
Thanks for coming, Diamondbacks. You couldn’t possibly pull this off. But at least you have a chance … in theory, anyway. When Arizona headed back to the east coast, the overpowering Phillies were 6-0 at Citizens Bank Park during the 2023 postseason. And the bad boys were ruthless about it, scoring 44 runs while allowing only 11 in the six beatdowns in their backyard. In bullying the Marlins, Braves and Diamondbacks in the streak of six straight postseason home victories the Phillies batted .301 with a .373 onbase percentage, .648 slugging percentage and 1.021 OPS.
Kyle Schwarber, Bryce Harper and all their rowdy friends had easily won the Home Run Derby during the six-win assault, launching 17 homers and yielding only two.
But the baseball gods can find ways to defy assumptions and change the order of the universe. This is why you should be careful about investing money in these outcomes. And don’t overthink it by betting on the underdog … not in this NLCS, anyway.
Game 6: Arizona 5, Philadelphia 1.
Game 7: Arizona 4, Philadelphia 2.
The Diamondbacks will open the 2023 World Series against the Rangers on Friday night in Arlington, Tex. This nondescript franchise that lost 110 games in 2021. They finished 14 games under .500 in 2022. This season the D-backs punched a wild-card ticket with only 84 regular-season wins.
And now … they’re 9-3 in the postseason and on the way to the World Series?
“The Brewers were supposed to beat us,” the Arizona reliever,
Ryan Thompson, told reporters after Game 7. “The Dodgers were supposed to beat us. The Phillies were supposed to beat us. They’re gonna say that the Rangers are supposed to beat us, too. We’ll see how it goes.”
When the Diamondbacks had franchise cornerstone first baseman Paul Goldschmidt playing at an All-Star level, they won three total postseason games.
And now, without Goldy, Arizona won nine postseason games. Goldschmidt wanted to be traded to a winning franchise for a chance to win a World Series. So the Diamondbacks worked out a deal with the Cardinals before the 2019 season.
With Goldschmidt the Cardinals are 4-11 in the postseason and have lost nine of their last 10 games in the annual October tournament. The Redbirds didn’t make the playoffs in 2023, losing 91 games for a .435 winning percentage that was the worst by this esteemed franchise in a full season since 1990. That was 34 years ago.
To recap: the Diamondbacks had a 3-5 postseason record with Goldschmidt in the lineup. They’re 9-3 in the postseason without Goldy. Christian Walker is their first baseman.
This isn’t about Goldy. This is more about the decline of the Cardinals. And this is about October surprises. Cardinal fans of a certain age know all about this. The 2006 Cardinals endured a late-season collapse, losing seven consecutive games and eight out of nine from Sept. 20 through Sept. 28.
After leading the NL Central by a seemingly comfortable seven games on Sept. 19, the Cardinals had their lead dissolve to a precariously thin half-game margin on Sept. 28. The Redbirds recovered just in time, winning two in a row over Milwaukee on the final weekend to save their season.
The 2006 Cardinals wandered into the postseason with 83 wins.
Since MLB implemented a divisional format in 1969, here are the lowest regular-season win totals in a full schedule by a team that won its league pennant:
2006 Cardinals, 83.
2023 Diamondbacks, 84.
1987 Twins, 85.
So don’t count out Arizona. The ‘06 Cardinals and ‘87 Twins won the World Series. Once you get to the final round, anything is possible.
In 2006, the 83-win Cardinals won the World Series trophy by knocking off the 88-win Padres, the 97-win Mets and the 95-win Tigers. St. Louis went 11-5 in the postseason.
In 1987 – this was before the advent of the wild-card format – the 85-win Twins upset the 98-win Tigers and the 95-win Cardinals. Minnesota was 8-4 in the postseason.
The 2023 Diamondbacks had a losing record (59-60) as late as Aug. 14. In their final series of the season, the D-backs were slapped around in a three-game sweep – at home – by the Astros. But they survived to cling to the final wild-card spot. After getting in, Arizona defeated the 92-win Brewers, the 100-win Dodgers, and the 90-win Phillies.
If the Diamondbacks could beat the 90-win Phillies – and do it the hard way by winning four of the final five NLCS games – then what’s to stop them from beating the 90-win Rangers?
In the opening betting odds, the Rangers were a -175 to win the series. The Diamondbacks were a +145 to win it all. Here’s what that means, hypothetically: you’d have to bet $200 to collect a $100 profit on a Texas series win. If you bet on the Diamondbacks, a $100 wager becomes a $200 profit if they win.
HOW ARIZONA BEAT THE PHILLIES
In no particular order:
1. Phillies closer Craig Kimbrel was horrendous in Game 3 and Game 4 at Arizona. He took the loss in back-to-back games, pitching to 11 batters and allowing four runs while getting only three outs. Kimbrel entered a 1-1 tie in Game 3 and was tagged for the game-winning run in the bottom of the 9th. The Phils lost 2-1. The next day, Kimbrel blew a 5-3 lead after manager Rob Thomson brought him in to attempt a six-out save. It was a disaster. The Phils lost 6-5, and the series was tied. Kimbrel could have put the Diamondbacks away. He failed.
2. The Arizona bullpen was superb in protecting the lead and sealing the wins in Game 6 and Game 7. Over the two nights the AZ relievers combined to pitch nine scoreless innings, allowing just four hits and a couple of walks. The relievers collectively faced 32 Philadelphia batters and only six reached base. Both games were winnable for the Phillies, but the Arizona bullpen dug in and wouldn’t budge, taking away all hope of a comeback.
3. The big, bad Phillies turned small in the final two games. They stopped hitting. In their season-ending losses they scored three runs in 18 innings, went 2 for 17 with runners in scoring position, and left 14 runners on base. The Phillies had only one home run and batted .174 over the final two games. In the consecutive failures, Philly’s 11 hits consisted of seven singles, three doubles and a solo homer.
4. With a chance to terminate the Diamondbacks with a dominant start, Phillies co-ace Aaron Nola was awful in Game 6, putting his team in a 5-1 deficit by getting muscled for six hits, two walks and four earned runs in 4 and ⅓ innings. The Diamondbacks turned the tables on the power-hitting Phillies by blistering Nola for back-to-back homers by Tommy Pham and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. to begin the second inning.
5. Diamondbacks starters Brandon Pfaadt and Merrill Kelly came through when their team really needed it. They were the starters in three of Arizona’s four wins – the other, a 6-5 victory, was an all-bullpen game by the D-backs. In his two starts, the rookie Pfaadt gave up two runs and struck out 50 percent of the batters faced in 9 and ⅔ innings. After getting smashed in a Game 2 loss, Kelly returned to Philly and subdued the Phillies in Game 6 by conceding only one run and striking out eight in five innings. In the final two games, the losing Phillies scored three runs in the nine combined innings thrown by Kelly And Pfaadt. And the two starting pitchers struck out 38.4 percent of the Phillies that came to the plate against them in the two Arizona wins that produced the upset.
6. The Diamondbacks found ways to score runs without going off for a bunch of home runs. In Games 6-7, the Diamondbacks stroked 21 hits – with 16 being singles. They walked five times. They laid down two sacrifice bunts and lofted a sac fly. They swiped eight bases without getting caught. Homers rule in the postseason, but no one ever said that it works 100 percent of the time. The Diamondbacks won the final two games on pitching and small-ball execution. This was personified by the brilliant rookie outfielder Corbin Carroll. In the final two wins he went 4 for 8, stole two bases, scored three runs and drove in two. One of his RBI came on a sac fly.
For the old-schoolers, AZ’s winning rally was something straight outta WhiteyBall. Emmanuel Rivera singled, Geraldo Perdomo sacrificed him to second, and, with two outs, Carroll hit a run-scoring single, After a pitching change, Carroll took off, stole second base, and scored on Gabriel Moreno’s single. A small-ball special and the D-backs led 3-2.
7. Philadelphia’s big guns went eerily quiet. In the final two losses that stunned Philly fans, the first three hitters in the home-team lineup did little. Kyle Schwarber, Trea Turner and Bryce Harper were a combined 1 for 20 with seven strikeouts. Turner closed the series by going 0 for 18. Nick Castellanos homered in Game 1, but in the final six games of the series he went 0 for 20 with 10 strikeouts. In the final two games, the Phillies didn’t get an RBI from Schwarber, Harper, Turner, Castellanos or J.T. Realmuto. After out-homering Arizona 9-1 in the first two games at Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies were out-homered by the Diamondbacks 2-1 over the final two games.
8. The Phillies could not handle the pressure. We saw that with Kimbrel in the pivotal losses in Games 3 and 4. We saw that by the suppressed offense and hideous performance with runners in scoring position in Games 6 and 7.
One moment summed it all up: In Game 7 against lefty Joe Mantiply, the right-handed hitting Trea Turner tried to bunt after Schwarber opened the bottom of the fifth inning with a double. It did nothing. Schwarber stayed at second and the Phillies didn’t score. What was Turner thinking? Is this why the Phillies signed him to an 11-year, $300 million contract … to bunt with a runner on second base? Turner had 35 doubles, five triples and 26 homers during the regular season but evidently lost his confidence in an important situation.
In getting eliminated in Game 7, the Phillies didn’t score after the fourth inning. And they mustered one hit over the final five innings.
9. We learned something … again. Money can’t buy you everything. The Phillies this season had a $246 million payroll that was more than double the size of Arizona’s payroll. And it didn’t matter. Arizona could have been wiped out by the blow-outs in Games 1 and 2, but the Diamondbacks proved they could take a punch. And when the D-backs began landing punches of their own, the Phillies couldn’t take it. With the pressure on, and out of home-run cannonballs, the home team folded during the final two nights of baseball in South Philly.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie hosts an opinionated sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. on Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible and Baseball Prospectus unless otherwise noted.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.