The Arizona Diamondbacks on Friday delivered the knockout blow to the San Francisco Giants and became the 2011 National League West Division Champions!
Down 1-0 going into the bottom of the 7th inning, first baseman Paul Goldschmidt walked, then was driven all the way around to score by a Chris Young double. After an intentional walk to Gerardo Parra with just one out, new shortstop John McDonald popped to first base, and Geoff Blum, pinch hitting for starter Joe Saunders, struck out looking.
David Hernandez relieved Saunders, and got Justin Christian to fly out to right field before allowing a single to Jeff Keppinger. Emmanuel Burriss came in to pinch run and did move to second base on a wild pitch, but key strikeouts to both Carlos Beltran and Brett Pill kept the score tied.
In the bottom of the eighth, third baseman Ryan Roberts (AKA "Tatman") smoked a 1-0 double to left field to lead off. Second baseman Aaron Hill sacrifice bunted to the pitcher to move Tatman to third base. Wisely, the Giants allowed their starter, Matt Cain, to intentionally walk Arizona's most dangerous power hitter, right fielder Justin Upton, before removing him in favor of lefty reliever Javier Lopez. Lopez faced just a single batter and threw only a single pitch, getting catcher Miguel Montero to fly out to shallow center field, not allowing the run to score from third. But with two outs, two runners on base, and a 1-2 count, Goldschmidt hit a shrieking line-drive into the right-field corner: his first career triple scoring two runs and giving the D-backs a two run advantage. Young's strikeout ended the inning, but not before the damage was done.
Tension filled the stadium as the air crackled with excitement and anticipation. Cheering partially gave way to thunderous silence as no one wanted to jinx the team by speaking the unspeakable: the Diamondbacks were about to go from worst in 2010 to first in 2011. Eventually, the sounds of "Thunderstruck" by AC/DC amplified the atmosphere in the stadium... J.J. Putz, the closer, and he of the 45 saves this season for Arizona, came in from the bullpen.
Putz's first challenger was Mark DeRosa, and Putz fell behind him with two early balls. The third pitch was a bloopy liner to center field. The tying run was coming to the plate in the form of the extremely dangerous and tough to strike out pinch hitter Pablo "Panda" Sandoval, relieving Andres Torres, who had pinch run for Brandon Belt, while Brandon Crawford pinch ran for DeRosa. Perhaps it was fate, or nerves, or the consequences of the inevitable... or maybe Putz was just mad about the single... but the un-K-able Panda was struck out swinging on a mere four pitches. On the very next pitch, a long fly out to center field eliminated Orlando Cabrera, and the Giants were left with but one out to play with, down by two runs. Eli Whiteside, the catcher, came to the plate, and on strike one, Crawford moved to second. Defensive indifference. His run didn't matter. All that did matter was getting out Whiteside. Strike two. The fans climbed to their feet, yelling JJ's name, whistling, and ready for the celebrations that were inevitable. Ball one. A collective groan, but then even louder cheering, as if the fans themselves could will the strikeout just by sheer volume. Another pitch... a foul ball. With a 1-2 count, and the decibel level inside Chase Field rivaling that of the inside of a jet engine at peak operation, Putz threw pitch number five home... a shallow pop to center field... caught by Chris Young!
Putz picked up Montero as Young gave a leap of ecstasy and the team rushed the field to celebrate. The Arizona Diamondbacks had just won the National League West Division, usurping the title from the once-champion San Francisco Giants, for the first time since 2007. Nothing that night could have been sweeter than the taste of champagne sprayed from dozens of bottles, nor more exciting from the fan's perspective than watching the team rush the pool in right field, jumping over the right field fence to splash into the cool water.
The team has a tough road to go: if they win home field advantage, they face the Atlanta Braves, against whom they have gone 3-3 this year. If they fail to gain that advantage, they face the Philadelphia Phillies, against whom they are also 3-3 this year. Arizona has among its young stars a potential Cy Young Award Winner (Ian Kennedy), a potential MVP (Justin Upton), a guy who was never supposed to make the team (Ryan Roberts), a complete turnaround (Sean Burroughs), the possible Rookie of the Year (Paul Goldschmidt), the unquestionable Manager of the Year (Kirk Gibson), three potential Gold Glove outfielders (Chris Young, Gerardo Parra, and Upton), a possible Silver Slugger pitcher (Daniel Hudson), and two of the best shutdown relievers in the game (David Hernandez and J.J. Putz), not to mention two possible Executives of the Year (Kevin Towers and Derrick Hall). Not too bad for a team the pundits predicted would be lucky to make it out of the cellar again this year. Rebuilding be damned.
Will we win the Series this year, the tenth anniversary of the improbable 2001 World Series against the Yankees? From this team, anything is within the realm of possibility. All I know is that it will be incredibly fun to watch!