NL wild-card hopefuls buckle up for wild ride

PHOENIX – The refrain is common, and the moment clearly embraced. When Arizona Diamondbacks’ Torey Lovullo told reporters during a recent home stand “I love September baseball,” he was certainly speaking for those directly engaged.

Coming into play Sept. 15, there are six teams fighting for three National League wild card spots. While the Phillies and Cubs are currently breathing slightly ahead of four other clubs, the Cubs, and one of those teams, face combat in the desert.

Beginning with a Friday night encounter, a Saturday date, and national television exposure Sunday night, the Cubs and Arizona Diamondbacks will attempt to gain separation. Not only do the Diamondbacks have those three with the Cubs, but also engage the San Francisco Giants for two in the desert next Tuesday and Wednesday.

For Arizona, a team that has played well for periods of time and mediocre on other occasions, “a sense of urgency” has captured the moment. With two weeks remaining, Lovullo asked his players “to give me your best effort for 14 games, and then we’ll see what happens.”

While there is a quiet confidence in the desert, there remains the realization of the task at hand.

“We have these three games at home (against Chicago) where we can hopefully make an impact,” said reliever Kevin Ginkel in the Arizona clubhouse before the series opener on Friday. “There is a sense of urgency, for sure. We’re good, and not out of it. Many games are left, and a lot can happen. We do play the Cubs and Giants and hopefully, in five straight games, we can make a dent in their playoff hope. These next five games will be critical.”

If the Diamondbacks are prepared for the stretch run, the acquisition of Paul Seward was a significant factor. In 16 appearances for Arizona, the veteran closer, before play on Sept. 15, had 12 saves in 14 opportunities.

Yet lost the value of the bullpen is Ginkel, a veteran reliever who was brought back from AAA Reno and has made a significant contribution. In 54 appearances before the Cubs series, the 29-year-old native of Chula Vista, Calif, is 9-0 and a 2.26 ERA. Along his season journey, Ginkel recorded five saves but his value is getting critical outs in the seventh and eighth innings.

Ginkel is one of several who raised the level of the game to meet the moment.

“We do not have aspirations of coming up short,” Lovullo told reporters before the Chicago series. “This group has a finishing mentality. They have a very tough-minded mentality with a great deal of incentive. I think they want to go out an tell a very good story.”

While the blinders may be affixed to the task at hand, players and club officials are, at this point, not oblivious to their surroundings. Coming into the Chicago series, three teams, Arizona, Cincinnati, and San Francisco were tied for the final wild-card spot and the Marlins were a one-half game behind.

While these clubs have the Cubs and Phillies directly on their radar screen, the task ahead remains as challenging as it is formidable.

“We are our best when we are having fun on a daily basis,” said Cubs manager David Ross before the weekend set in the desert. “One thing I know about this group is that they will bring it every single day. They have done a nice job of responding when their backs are against the wall. They have risen to the occasion. We have to continue to play our game and do what we do well. Then, we’ll be fine.”  

In the opener …Despite a strong five-plus inning outing from starter Brandon Pfaadt, the Diamondbacks walked a ninth-inning tightrope and held on for 6-4 win over the Cubs before 32,864 Friday night.

Powered by a pair of three-run homers from Lourdes Gurriel, Jr. in the first and Alek Thomas in the sixth, two Arizona relievers withstood a barrage of three Chicago homers in the ninth.

Still, it was Thomas’ three-run blast which barely cleared the rightfield fence with two out in the sixth and provided the slight margin of victory. The blast came against Cy Young candidate Justin Steele with whom Thomas shares the same agent in Wasserman Worldwide.

“No, I didn’t think it was gone but hoping (right fielder Christopher Morel) would not catch it,” Thomas said. “I didn’t think it was gone. (Morel) turned around and I saw the same guy, who caught a few of my homers, catch this one, too.”

Closer Paul Sewald was called upon to record his 13th save for Arizona and, along with Kyle Nelson, survived ninth-inning Chicago homers from Ian Happ (solo), a two-run blast from Seiya Suzuki, and a solo shot from Morel.

Monthly Awards … For the month of August, the Arizona organization minor league awards went to position player Double-A Amarillo Caleb Roberts, a catcher, and High-A Hillsboro right-hander Ricardo Yan.

Roberts hit .321 (26-for-81)/.966 OPS with eight doubles, two triples, two home runs, 15 runs scored, 11 RBI and 14 walks in 20 games with the Sod Poodles.  He was signed as the D-backs’ fifth-round selection in the 2021 Draft out of The University of North Carolina.

Yan went 2-0 with a 0.35 ERA (1 ER in 25.2 IP), 39 strikeouts, a 0.66 WHIP and a .098 opponent average (8-for-82) in five games (three starts) between Low-A Visalia and Hillsboro.

The series continues … For the middle contest of this three-game set on Saturday, look for Arizona righty Zack Davies (2-5, 6.81) to oppose righty Kyle Hendricks (6-7, 3.71). For the Sunday finale at 7 Eastern (ESPN), it’s right-hander Ryne Nelson (7-8, 5.53) opposing lefty Jordan Wicks (3-0, 1.99). After an off-day Monday, the Giants visit Chase Field for two critical games and the Cubs return to Wrigley for their final six home games. This includes three each with the Pirates and Rockies.

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