Photo by Jonathan Willey
By Greg Dillard
The past two seasons had been forgettable ones for the D-backs, with Arizona sputtering to consecutive last places finishes in 2009 and ‘10. They fell victim to high strikeout totals and a lackluster bullpen, with the postseason being a distant thought.
Things have taken a drastic change in 2011.
The D-backs soared to the top of the division standings this summer, and the team adopted a “Why not us?” motto under new skipper Kirk Gibson en route to a 94-win regular season. General Manager Kevin Towers overhauled the roster, and the changes yielded immediate results.
Arizona claimed the National League West Division championship last Friday for the fifth time in franchise history.
After waiting several days for the NL Wild Card race to play out, the D-backs found that they will be facing off against the NL Central champion Milwaukee Brewers. Arizona held a 4-3 edge in the regular-season series.
The NLDS kicks off on Saturday at Miller Park in Milwaukee. The two teams will square off in Game 2 on Sunday before heading to the Valley of the Sun for Tuesday’s Game 3.
With both teams possessing no shortage of talent, it’s sure to be a compelling series from start to finish. Here’s a look at how the D-backs and Brewers match up.
Stellar starting pitching will be on center stage throughout this series. The D-backs’ rotation is led by ace right-hander Ian Kennedy. In just his second full season in the Major Leagues, he soared to new heights on the mound.
Kennedy amassed a career-high 21 wins in 33 starts to go with a sharp 2.88 ERA in 222 innings pitched. He went toe to toe with many of the game’s best and came away victorious on several occasions. Kennedy faced off against former Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum in a September matchup. It was Kennedy who tossed seven innings of one-run baseball to earn the win.
Daniel Hudson teamed with Kennedy to form a dominant one-two punch atop the rotation. Hudson notched 16 wins and a 3.49 ERA to go with 169 strikeouts in 222 innings.
“They’ve been a really solid one-two,” manager Kirk Gibson said. “I don’t think many people around the country look at Kennedy and Hudson like a formidable one-two, but we don’t care about that. We see what they do for us day in and day out and what they mean to this team.”
Veteran southpaw Joe Saunders figures to round out the D-backs’ starting pitching staff in this series. The left-hander won 12 games in 33 starts.
Arizona isn’t the only team in this NLDS who boasts a formidable starting staff. Milwaukee will counter with ace Yovani Gallardo, Zach Greinke and Shaun Marcum.
Gallardo is slated to start Saturday’s opener. He’s served as Milwaukee’s ace for the past three seasons. The right-hander earned a 17-10 record to go with a respectable 3.52 ERA. He finished the regular season by throwing 7.1 innings of one-run ball in a no-decision.
Greinke was acquired from Kansas City during the offseason and brought the Brewers 16 wins in 28 starts.
It’s no secret that Towers made it a priority to revamp the D-backs’ bullpen. His efforts have paid huge dividends in 2011 as the bullpen emerged as a big strength.
Closer J.J. Putz is the anchor and leader of the new-look relief corps. He was lights out all season long by tallying 45 saves and a 2.17 ERA.
In the eighth inning, the Brewers can expect to see David Hernandez on the mound for the D-backs. He’s posted a memorable first season in the desert by notching a 3.38 ERA in 74 games. When Putz went on the disabled list, it was Hernandez who filled in as closer.
Right-hander Brad Ziegler and lefty Joe Paterson both joined the D-backs this season and have succeeded in their bullpen roles. Ziegler posted an incredible 1.74 ERA in 23 appearances. Paterson, who was a Rule 5 draft selection, became a viable left-handed specialist against many of the National League’s elite lefty hitters.
Like Arizona, the Brewers have a reliable relief corps.
Closer John Axford solidified himself among the league’s best closers by nailing down 46 saves to go with a miniscule 1.95 ERA. Milwaukee then made a midsummer trade with the Mets to further boost its bullpen by acquiring Francisco Rodriguez.
While Rodriguez was previously a closer, he earned a 1.86 ERA in 31 outings in a setup role.
The Arizona lineup is always capable of plating runs in bunches with a pair of All-Stars making their mark.
Justin Upton enjoyed a banner year by hitting .289 with a career-high 31 homers and 88 RBI. He also drilled 39 doubles and five triples. Meanwhile, Miguel Montero provided some thunder from the left side of the plate with his .282 average and career-high 18 homers and 86 RBI.
Then there’s Ryan Roberts, who has served as a sparkplug in the lineup all season long. He set career-highs in homers with 19, doubles with 25 and RBI with 65.
Rookie first baseman Paul Goldschmidt burst onto the scene in late July by crushing eight homers, nine doubles and driving in 26 runs. After being traded to Arizona from Toronto, Aaron Hill caught fire at the plate by hitting .315 with 16 RBI during his time as a D-back.
Arizona also brings plenty of threats off the bench and in utility roles. Willie Bloomquist is capable of sparking a rally at any moment while Lyle Overbay, Henry Blanco and Geoff Blum have gotten several big hits for the D-backs this season.
Any team that pencils in not one, but two MVP candidates in its starting lineup is in good shape. That’s exactly what the Brewers have in Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder. Braun was an All-Star for the fourth time this season while batting .332 with 33 long balls and 111 RBI. Fielder unloaded 38 homers with 36 doubles and a hefty 120 RBI.
Second baseman Richie Weeks played well enough to earn his first All-Star selection, finishing with a .269 mark and 20 homers.
Both pitching staffs will have their hands full when facing these skilled Arizona and Milwaukee lineups.
“You got back to controlling and focusing on each pitch and not really getting to caught up in what they can do,” Arizona pitcher Micah Owings said. “You respect that going in, but you don’t really look at it when it matters.”