PHOENIX – Dodger Stadium and Chase Field are separated by 358 miles. Many Los Angeles natives move to Phoenix, and vice versa, while the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks play each other over a dozen times each year in the National League West.
In theory, the close proximity and city ties create a fierce rivalry.
In reality, it’s always been largely one-sided. The Dodgers have reached the World Series three times since the Diamondbacks last made the playoffs in 2017. Dodgers fans frequently dominate Chase Field crowds, and L.A. is 38-15 against Arizona over the last three seasons. But in the first two games of the National League Division Series, the dynamic has changed.
After the Diamondbacks shockingly took two games at Chavez Ravine to take a 2-0 series lead, they return to the desert tonight for their first home playoff game in six years. Arizona could sweep the best-of-five series by winning Game 3 on its home turf.
This isn’t just any playoff game: a trip to the NLCS is on the line, in front of a sellout crowd. It’s a chance for Arizona to truly prove itself against the powerhouse of the NL West.
“It’s a great team,” Diamondbacks center fielder Alek Thomas said Tuesday of the Dodgers.“You definitely have to owe that to them. I feel like we’ve been bullied for the last two years that I’ve been here, so going out and putting it to them in the playoffs is really special.”
The Diamondbacks have been road warriors so far this postseason. In the hostile environments of Milwaukee and L.A., the Diamondbacks have won four straight games away from home to put themselves on the precipice of the NLCS. They return tonight to Chase Field, a park often dominated by opposing fans.
However, playoff baseball brings a different energy to downtown Phoenix. When the Diamondbacks last won a playoff game in 2017, a thrilling 11-8 wild-card victory over the Colorado Rockies, the atmosphere was tremendous.
It’s an environment that Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo hasn’t soon forgotten.
“There was an energy that I don’t necessarily feel here every single night, and we played one of our finest games that day,” Lovullo said Tuesday. “I think our guys were ready to go. I just remember a lot of extra-base hits and a lot of excitement in the crowd.”
Paul Goldschmidt’s three-run homer in the first inning was a particularly vivid memory for Arizona’s skipper.
“That eruption was probably one of the top two or top three eruptions I’ve ever felt at a stadium,” Lovullo said. “Hopefully we can do that a few more times tomorrow.”
The fondest memory of the 2017 Diamondbacks season for most was the wild-card series win, which took place under a single-game-elimination format as opposed to this year’s best-of-three series. Relief pitcher Archie Bradley’s two-run triple in the seventh inning was particularly memorable.
The last playoff game to date played at Chase Field, however, was more somber. Los Angeles finished off a three-game sweep in the 2017 NLDS, going on to make an appearance in the World Series before falling to the Houston Astros.
Wednesday’s game presents an opportunity for sweet revenge. Arizona starting pitcher Brandon Pfaadt will look to feed off the moment, and the team’s momentum after its 4-0 start to the postseason.
“You can use it to your advantage,” Pfaadt said. “I think having that adrenaline rush can make you a better pitcher.”
Preparing for the pressure that’s sure to come in Game 3 is made easier after the team’s experience on the road. Reliever Andrew Saalfrank was called up to the big leagues for the first time on Sept. 4. Yet, the 26-year-old was thrust into the most high-leverage of situations Monday night in Game 2.
Saalfrank entered the game in relief of Zach Gallen in the sixth inning, with two runners on and a 4-1 lead. After walking a batter and allowing an infield single to make it 4-2, the Dodger Stadium crowd went berserk. Saalfrank, in a situation unlike ever before in his career, secured a crucial strikeout of James Outman with the bases loaded.
“[Kevin] Ginkel said something after the game, like it doesn’t get much crazier than that,” Saalfrank said. “I mean sold-out crowd, Dodgers, a couple of runners on, then I loaded them and it made it even worse. But yeah, it was awesome. As a baseball player and as a kid, to be able to look back later in life and say that I was able to do that is a super special moment.”
The younger Diamondbacks are learning the ebbs and flows of the postseason on the fly this year, and what makes October games unique.
“I think it’s the feeling of importance in each moment of the game,” star outfielder Corbin Carroll said. “Obviously, that’s there during the regular season, and in baseball in general, but I think it’s heightened a step, and I think just every player can feel that.”
Game 3 in the Valley possesses the highest of stakes in quite some time. With a win, Arizona will reach the NLCS for the third time ever in franchise history, and for the first time in 16 years. And it would come at the expense of their most hated rival.
What stood out in the Diamondbacks clubhouse leading up to Game 3, though, was how level-headed the team appeared. Carroll, always calm and collected, was no different, simply locked in on the task at hand.
“This is a great Dodgers team,” Carroll said. “Baseball can flip in an instant. I think everyone understands the importance of trying to do it tomorrow. We’re going to treat this like a must-win game, just like we will every game after that.”