NL Wild Card preview; Arizona – Milwaukee

PHOENIX – During the final week of the regular season, Arizona Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo indicated to reporters that if you told him during spring training his team would qualify for post-season play, he proclaimed, “sign me up.”

That fact Arizona survived the grind of a protracted baseball season, a sputtering offense, and an unreliable starting rotation, the achievement becomes all that more improbable.

Here’s a team that went from 52-110 in the span of two seasons ago to October baseball. Monitoring the achievement of the Baltimore Orioles, who amassed the same 52-110 mark, the results are stark. In a similar two-year span, the Birds reached a 100-win season in 2023. For the current season which just ended, Arizona finished with a record of 84-78 and into playoff participation.

In all fair assessment, that’s where the companions stop. In this wild card season, the Diamondbacks face a formidable task. A lack of offense in the closing days of the season (three runs in their final four games and a four-game losing streak entering the playoffs) and rookie righthander Brandon Pfaadt to potentially start the post-season are significant challenges.

“I feel this team can gather up, link at-bats, have an all-field approach, get stubborn with men in scoring position, and compete with anybody,” Lovullo said after the Diamondbacks dropped their season finale 8-1 to Houston in Chase Field on Sunday. “That is where I will stand. This is a very capable group that when they go out there and commit to one another, they can do some damage.”

A few considerations …

OFFENSE- Numbers here may be deceiving. Though the Diamondbacks are in the middle of the pack in team batting average and power numbers, they excel in aggressiveness on the bases. Led by Corbin Carroll (54 stolen bases and 26 from Jake McCarthy, who is the club’s fourth outfielder), Lovullo preaches daring exploits. For the Diamondbacks to remain alive in the wild card round, they must “manufacturer” runs.

There is no true power hitter and no true dependable clutch hitter throughout the lineup. Though first baseman Christian Walker topped the club in power numbers (. 258 batting average, 33 homers,103 RBIs), critical production is limited. For the season, Walker hit .198 in the category RISP (runners in scoring position) and hit. 205 with RISP with two outs.

Same numbers for infielder Ketel Marte. In the category RISP, Marte hit. .192 with two outs.

For scouts at Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Houston, one Marte at-bat could foreshow how the Milwaukee pitching staff will approach. Down by that 1-0 score in the seventh, Marte came to the plate with the bases loaded. Astros’ reliver Hector Neris delivered three straight breaking balls, down and in to Marte, who was hitting left-handed at the time. Marte waved at each pitch and displayed a clear vulnerability.

It is likely the principal method employed by the Milwaukee staff is to limit any offensive capability by simply keeping Carroll off the bases and preventing any opportunity to manufacture runs.

DEFENSE – The organization dives into analytics head-first and positions players intelligently around the diamond. The result is placing players in the right place and the dynamics of Alek Thomas in centerfield is an important component. Thomas is an elite defender and if he played in a high-profile market, his profile would likely increase.

For the season, the Diamondbacks committed the fewest errors in the majors, and bench coach Jeff Banister and infield coach Tony Perezchica seem to find way ways to improve an already stellar defense.

“In the post-season, it’s pitching and defense,” said outfielder Tommy Pham after the season ended on Sunday. “For the most part, in the (recently concluded Houston series), you saw great pitching and great defense. That’s what wins games.”

PITCHING – How the Diamondbacks qualified with essentially two starters baffles the baseball world. Relying on right-handers Zac Gallen (17-9, 3.47 ERA) and Merrill Kelly (12-8, 3.29), Arizona decision-makers became frustrated by another two-thirds of the rotation and took drastic measures. Here, lefty Madison Bumgarner and righty Zack Davies, starters at the beginning of the season, were each Designated for Assignment during the season and the fifth starter Ryne Nelson, spent part of the season with the Reno Aces at the Triple AAA level.

Emerging as the number three starter late in the season, Pfaadt (3-9, 5.72 in 18 starts) will likely get the ball from Lovullo to open the series.

What saved the club was bullpen efficiency. Burdened by a marginal pen at best last season, general manager Mike Hazen added significant personnel and the result was the ability for Lovullo and his team to effectively close out games.

Recent additions after the All-Star game include closer Paul Sewald (15 saves with Arizona) and lefty Andrew Saalfrank (0.00 ERA in 10 appearances) and each has strengthened a previously weak link.

INTANGIBLES – What may work to the Diamondbacks’ advantage is their youth. Several key players have not experienced post-season play and the energy and dynamism could work in their favor.

“This clubhouse has been really good because I don’t feel the pressure from other players,” said veteran Evan Longoria. “In some clubhouses, there are a lot of guys who have been on the verge or through the playoffs and understand the gravity of the moment. I think youthfulness is playing to our advantage. The guys are just going out and playing free and enjoying this sort of atmosphere. I’ve been in some clubhouses with a lot of veteran presence and that weight can be heavy. I see things in here as a time to embrace big moments and this is where guys make a name for themselves.”

In the Milwaukee series, Lovullo will try and maximize his greatest asset and that is speed. That would mean speed with runners off the bat, pressuring the defense, and taking extra bases.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN – Starting pitching could define this series, The Brewers open with right-hander Corbin Burnes (10-8, 3.39 in 32 starts), likely followed by Freddy Peralta (12-10, 3.86 30 starts) and Brandon Woodruff, (5-1, 2.28) who has battled shoulder injuries for most of the season.

To be successful, the Diamondbacks must stay away from Brewers’ closer Devin Williams, who has been lights out. In the regular season, Williams earned 36 saves, a 1.53 ERA and recorded 87 strikeouts in 58.2 innings.

If Lovullo starts rookie Pfaadt in the opener, that will provide Gallen to come back in game two and Kelly in game three. The Arizona bullpen, while improved, has also been inconsistent. Marginal efforts from Miguel Castro, Joe Mantiply and Kyle Nelson may not keep a game close.


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