‘Unacceptable’: Diamondbacks don’t finish as MLB’s worst team, but they were close

It was a long season for the Arizona Diamondbacks, who finished the 2021 season with a 52-110 record. (Photo courtesy of Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – Game 162. Around the major leagues Sunday, there was plenty of buzz surrounding a lot of ball clubs in their final game of a marathon regular season.

In Arizona, the finale between the Colorado Rockies and Diamondbacks was meaningless, at least in terms of postseason impact. But around the Valley and within the Diamondbacks clubhouse, there was something big on the line: a franchise record nobody wanted.

The 2004 Diamondbacks finished 51-111, the worst record in franchise history. Going into Sunday’s game at Chase Field, the 2021 Diamondbacks had lost 110 games.

And in the bottom of the seventh inning, it looked an awful lot like this latest Diamondbacks club would join the 2004 team as part of an unwanted historical footnote.

The Rockies led 4-1, limiting the Diamondbacks to three hits. At one point, with the record-tying loss seemingly inevitable, the 12,565 fans booed their hometown team. But two innings later, the score was 4-4, and the crowd was the loudest it had been all day.

Ketel Marte and Josh Rojas began the ninth with two fly balls for outs, bringing second baseman Josh VanMeter to the plate. On a 3-and-2 count, the left-handed batter made contact with a 98-mph fastball and watched it fly into the right field seats.

“The two guys before me took pretty big swings to try and end the game, so I thought I’d just try to follow suit,” VanMeter said. “I thought I hit it a lot better than I actually did.”

It was good enough to keep the Diamondbacks from infamy.

Sam Hillard, the Rockies right fielder, raced to the wall, tracking the ball and leaping up onto the wall, but he could only watch as the ball cleared the fence to end the game in dramatic fashion.

Although the win allowed the Diamondbacks to avoid the record book, and the clubhouse was ecstatic about finishing a forgettable season on a high note, VanMeter’s blast couldn’t wash away all that Arizona had gone through over the past six months.

“You are always wanting to achieve and go to the next level,” manager Torey Lovullo said. “I know we were on a bad pace a couple weeks ago, and we seemed to turn it around enough to say we are not the worst team in franchise history. But I’m not satisfied by being the second worst.”

Entering the season as underdogs in the National League West, the Diamondbacks held their own in April. After a slow start, Arizona won nine of 11 games and finished the month 14-12. The string included Madison Bumgarner’s seven-inning no hitter against the Atlanta Braves on April 25.

However, that win in Atlanta would be the team’s last road victory until June 26, a brutal MLB-record streak of 24 straight losses on the road before Arizona won against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park.

In June, the Diamondbacks also set a franchise record with a 17-game overall losing streak. And in July they lost 22-1 to the Los Angeles Dodgers, the most runs surrendered by a Diamondbacks team in a game.

That was enough history for the 2021 ballclub.

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“This was a tough year, and it’s unacceptable,” outfielder Kole Calhoun said. “It’s unacceptable to everybody in that clubhouse, to the fans and to this organization.”

Injuries played a key role in Arizona’s struggles.

Lovullo sent 41 pitchers to the mound in 2021, just one short of the record set by the Seattle Mariners in 2019. Out of the top 10 players in Baseball Reference’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) for the Diamondbacks this season, seven ended up on the injured list throughout the season.

Lovullo also began showing frustration in the dugout on a regular basis. Over his five seasons managing the Diamondbacks, 2021 was a low. The winning percentage is the worst, the team’s defense is among the bottom five in fielding percentage and the top five in errors. A lot of baseball experts believed Lovullo would be dismissed at the end of the season, but Diamondbacks General Manager Mike Hazen extended Lovullo’s contract through 2022.

Now, following consecutive losing seasons, the Diamondbacks and Lovullo enter the offseason with a lot to clean up.

If there is anything good to take away from a bad season, it’s the optimism that comes with having a high draft pick, although even when the Diamondbacks won on Sunday, they lost.

Before the final series of the season, the Diamondbacks held the worst record in baseball with 50 victories, while Baltimore was second-worst with 52 wins. The team with the worst record gets the highest pick in the draft.

Facing the playoff-hopeful Toronto Blue Jays, the Orioles were swept while the Diamondbacks won two of three against the Rockies. It left the teams tied at the bottom of the major league heap with identical 52-110 records.

The tiebreaker to determine the MLB Draft order gives the highest pick to the team with the worst record of the two tied teams during the previous season. Since Arizona and Baltimore also tied in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season with 25-35 records, the tiebreaker was bumped back another season.

In 2019, the Diamondbacks finished 85-77, far ahead of the 54-108 Orioles. By virtue of that tiebreaker, Baltimore will make the first pick in the 2022 MLB Draft and Arizona will select second.

It is the first time the Diamondbacks have ever had the second pick in the draft, but it’s their highest pick since 2015, when they selected Dansby Swanson first overall. Since 1996, Arizona has picked in the top five four times. Twice they had the first overall selection, taking Justin Upton first in 2005 and Swanson at No. 1 10 years later. They had the third overall pick in 2011 and selected Trevor Bauer, who won the 2020 NL Cy Young award for Cincinnati.

It might have felt like a missed opportunity for some Diamondbacks fans, but Lovullo is happy Arizona is not on the clock just yet.

“I understand the excitement of picking No. 1 … picking 1 for me meant we were the worst team in baseball,” he said. “It’s nothing I have ever wanted to happen. We were doing everything we possibly could to avoid picking No. 1, and I’m proud to say we fought until the very end.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Zach Larson expects to graduate in 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Larson, who has interned with the Chicago Cubs, National Quarterback Club, FC Arizona and IMGLLO, is working in the Phoenix Sports Bureau.