PHOENIX – The 2023 Arizona Diamondbacks are no strangers to making a way out of no way.
Falling out of playoff contention in July, a postseason drought appeared to be trending toward its sixth straight year. But unlike previous seasons, the young and determined Diamondbacks showed resolve to get back on track by securing a National League wild-card berth against the Milwaukee Brewers.
So when faced with a three-run deficit in Game 1 and down two runs in Game 2, manager Torey Lovullo pushed the right buttons without sweat and leaned on the players he watched grow up as they pulled out a 5-2 win Wednesday to advance to the National League Division Series.
The Diamondbacks head to the NLDS for the first time since 2017, after clinching a 2-0 series sweep on the road. As they celebrated in the visitor’s clubhouse at American Family Field, Lovullo reminisced about how special this young team is after a historic series win in Milwaukee.
“I’ve known these kids for five or six years as they have been developing in the system, and it is a true connection,” said Lovullo, just two years removed from managing Arizona’s 110-loss season.
“It’s the dark times coming out the other end and then celebrating with kids that I’ve watched basically grow up right before my very eyes.”
With the win, the Diamondbacks clinched a meeting with their rivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers. The best-of-five series begins Saturday in Los Angeles, with Merrill Kelly slated to start for the Diamondbacks against Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw. The Dodgers swept the Diamondbacks in the 2017 NLDS, Arizona’s last postseason appearance.
For the second straight game, Arizona fell into an early hole against Milwaukee after the Brewers scored two runs in the first inning against Diamondbacks ace Zac Gallen.
The Diamondbacks didn’t find any better fortune in the second inning, with starting catcher Gabriel Moreno being hit in the head by a follow-through from Brewers second baseman Brice Turang.
Moreno was looked at by the trainers for six minutes before being allowed to complete the inning. He would not return to the game after team doctors deemed it too risky.
After the game, Lovullo revealed that Moreno was not in concussion protocol and will undergo further tests.
If Moreno is not able to start for Game 1 of the NLDS, Lovullo will have to decide if he keeps Moreno on the roster and potentially only has one healthy catcher on the roster, or if he will bring in a replacement for Moreno.
If Lovullo decides to take Moreno off the NLDS roster, he will be ineligible to play for the entire NLDS and NL Championship Series due to the MLB’s postseason roster rules.
The Diamondbacks’ offensive struggles continued through the fourth inning against Brewers starting pitcher Freddy Peralta, who held Arizona scoreless through four innings, giving up one walk and zero hits. A solo home run from Alek Thomas in the fifth inning provided a spark for the Diamondbacks, cutting the Brewer lead in half.
“I will say for the first four innings of today’s game, we were absolutely shut down by Peralta,” Lovullo said.
Thomas’ dinger extended the Diamondbacks’ active streak of 13 consecutive postseason games with a home run, the longest active streak in the league and tying the Houston Astros for fourth place all-time with their 13-game span that lasted from 2001–2004.
The Diamondbacks kept the pressure on Peralta over the next inning, and eventually took the lead in the sixth with a four-run frame led by consistent hitting from the middle of the order.
“I think once we put together some great at-bats, things turned our way,” Thomas said.
It started with a two-run single from second baseman Ketel Marte with no outs, which ended the night for Peralta after five innings.
It wouldn’t stop there, as Arizona tagged on two more runs to build a 5-2 lead, after scoring off a wild pitch from Brewers rookie reliever Abner Uribe and later a RBI single from Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
After Gallen’s bumpy 32-pitch first inning, he pitched five scoreless innings, only allowing two hits and two walks the rest of the way.
Even after the rocky start, Lovullo had faith that Gallen would rebound and keep Arizona in the game.
“He walked by me after the first inning, and it was almost like a don’t-you-dare comment. (He) said, ‘I’m giving you seven today if you give me over 100 pitches.’ I said, ‘Go ahead and show me, get it done,’” Lovullo said.
“He came close, but he really stepped up and started to make pitches and gave us a chance to catch our breath.”
Once Gallen settled, the Diamondbacks, as they have much of the season, clawed and scraped their way back. The bullpen took over in the seventh inning and continued its dominance in the series with three scoreless innings.
The Brewers managed to load the bases with one out in the eighth inning, but weren’t able to draw closer after Diamondbacks reliever Andrew Saalfrank came in and shut down the inning with six pitches thrown.
“I think I might have said it pre-Game 1 that stopping momentum and stopping these big runs is the most important thing in playoff baseball, so you have to do some uncharacteristic things,” Lovullo said about the important pitching change.
“I trusted Andrew Saalfrank, and I just wanted to change the mojo and change the momentum, and it worked out well.”
The adversity the young Diamondbacks faced was apparent in the box score: Arizona was out-hit by Milwaukee 21-16 during the series, and yet outscored the Brewers 11-5. After breezing through a 92-win regular season and taking the NL Central crown, Milwaukee was favored to win this short series, especially on the Brewers’ home turf.
“You talk about adaptability and resilience. That was in the forefront of today’s (game) more than anything. Our guys were tough, and it was a young group that stepped up,” Lovullo said.
The Diamondbacks are now 2-0 in the Wild Card round under Lovullo as manager, defeating the Colorado Rockies 11-8 in the 2017 NL Wild Card series.
The Dodgers took the season series 8-5, winning five out of seven games at Dodger Stadium, including a sweep during the last series of the regular season in late August.
This is not unfamiliar territory for the Diamondbacks, who hope to reverse a 3-0 sweep for the Dodgers in 2017. Los Angeles would eventually fall in seven games to the Houston Astros.
The Diamondbacks did something this postseason that they could not six years ago, and have not done since their World Series-winning run in 2001: win back-to-back postseason games away from Chase Field.
Arizona became the fourth team in league history to win after facing a multi-run deficit in each of its first two postseason games, joining the 1956 Dodgers, 2008 Rays and 2009 Yankees, according to ESPN Stats & Info. The Diamondbacks are the first team in MLB history to do this on the road for both games, with each of the previous three winning both games at home.
Time will tell if the Diamondbacks can continue this success away from home, as they are 7-14 on the road in postseason history, and they have not won at Dodger Stadium since April 2.
This is something that will have to budge if they want a chance to advance to the NLCS against the winner of the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies series.
With the sweep in Milwaukee, the Diamondbacks now have a few days to rest, time that is very needed for a bullpen that saw seven of nine relievers used over the last two days.
The Diamondbacks will at a minimum host Game 3 of the series at Chase Field on Wednesday, forcing a Guns N’ Roses concert that was previously scheduled for that night to be moved.
Kelly, the Game 1 starter whose last outing was Saturday against the Houston Astros, has a 0-2 record against the Dodgers through four games this season, allowing nine earned runs through 20 1/3 innings. Seven of those runs accumulated in his last matchup against Los Angeles on Aug. 29, a 9-1 Diamondbacks loss.
Kershaw, the Dodgers’ Game 1 starter, also has not pitched since Saturday, when the Dodgers fell 2-1 to the San Francisco Giants.
Kershaw has seen success over the Diamondbacks this season with a 2-1 record, only allowing one earned run in his last outing against Arizona on Aug. 29. The Dodgers ace has been tremendous at Dodger Stadium this season, with a 1.58 ERA, a 7-1 record and 64 strikeouts.
Going into the weekend, the Diamondbacks are ready to prove that things have changed since the regular season.
“I don’t think it’s any secret that the Dodgers have for sure had the division’s number, had our number. I think that we’ve also (shown) a growth in the sense of the mindset and the culture change here of being able to go into Dodger Stadium and hang with them,” Gallen said.
“I think it’s in our favor that we’re going to a familiar place. It’s going to be a good test for sure, but everybody in that locker room is excited to get there and see what we’re made of.”
The Diamondbacks lost their final four regular-season games, but something in Milwaukee clicked and the momentum swung. Now the familiar Dodgers are on deck, and Lovullo senses a shift.
“I believe in them. They believe in themselves, which is the most important thing. So we’re going to take it one game at a time,” Lovullo said.
“We know the Dodgers very well, and it’s going to be a great challenge, but I know this team is connected, and I feel like this team is very dangerous when they are connected.”