Series Preview #+1: Talking Diamondbacks And NLDS With AZ Snake Pit

 

As the Brewers and Diamondbacks prepare to open their playoff matchup tomorrow, Jim McLennan of AZ Snake Pit and I traded insults questions about this series. Here are his answers to my questions: Check over there later today for my answers to his.

KL: This is a Diamondbacks team that lost 97 games in 2010 and 92 in 2009 before turning things around and winning the NL West going away in 2011. Is it safe to say that Arizona fans have gotten much more than anyone expected from this team?

JM: Almost certainly. I was simply looking for improvement from last year's 67-95 season. Somewhere around the mid-70's as a win total, and I'd have been very happy with a .500 record. That seemed like the upper end of expectations, especially after going 11-15 in April, and sitting in last place on May 16.

Personally, I've been waiting for the 'bad' Diamondbacks - the ones who averaged 70 wins per season over the three years up to the end of April - to come back. Even as they clawed their way back up to fight with the Giants, overtook them, and clung to first, I was sure they were just teasing us. They had a six-game losing streak on the East Coast in August that I was sure was it... Then they won the next nine games, so what do I know?. As I sit here, I still think something will happen, and we'll be docked ten wins for financial irregularities or something. But anything from here is absolutely gravy.

Follow the jump for much more!

KL: Obviously most of us have heard of Ian Kennedy, a likely contender for the NL Cy Young. What can you tell us about the seasons of the two starters behind him: Daniel Hudson and Joe Saunders?

JM: In terms of raw 'stuff', Hudson is perhaps the best pitcher in our rotation. It's just a question of whether he can harness it or not. The key for him is often the first inning. That seems to be where he's most vulnerable, with an ERA of 6.00 there this season - the rest of the way, it's barely half that. If he can have a clean, or at least scoreless, opening frame [and that challenge is not made easier by the expected Brewers line-up], then Arizona fans will breathe a collective sigh of relief.

Joe Saunders makes sabermetrics devotees wake up in a cold sweat. He walks too many people, hardly gets any strikeouts and seems to suffer from a variant of agoraphobia, triggered by having the bases empty. And yet, at the end of seven innings, you look at the scoreboard and somehow, the team are still in the game. He seems to have saved his best this season for big occasions, e.g. stopping a potentially dangerous losing streak in San Diego, or dueling Matt Cain in our clincher, so it'll be interesting to see how he'll do here.

KL: Like Ron Roenicke, Kirk Gibson is in his first full year as a major league manager. When Gibson took over the knock on him was a lack of coaching experience: He'd only served as a bench coach for parts of six seasons. What's your opinion of him as a manager?

JM: I was skeptical of him too, on arrival. He's seriously old-school, and some of his early actions, e.g. banning iPads from the clubhouse immediately before games, scarcely seemed like the sort of things which should be the first concern on a 97-loss team. There are certainly a number of his decisions and practices I still disagree with - Willie Bloomquist is not a lead-off hitter, and the team has run into more outs on the bags than any other team, without that aggression apparently benefiting them.

But you just can't argue with the results. A team that just about everyone picked to finish dead-last, has become more than the sum of its parts, so now we just shake our heads and say, "In Gibby We Trust". He seems particularly adept at getting the most out of his players: Ryan Roberts wasn;t even supposed to be on the roster, but put up more WAR than all but a couple of NL 3Bs this year. Gerardo Parra blossomed from a fourth outfielder into one of the best defenders in the game. Miguel Montero'd defense improved visibly through the year.

I think a good part of it is the excellent coaching staff with which he surrounded himself. Charles Nagy (pitching) and Don Baylor (hitting) appear to have done a bang-up job. Add Matt Williams (third-base) and Eric Young (first-base), and you've got a bunch of guys that had a lot of success in their careers, and seem to have a knack for passing on the necessary skills to the next generation of players.

KL: When Ryan Roberts hit his walkoff grand slam on Tuesday, Daron Sutton drew a fair amount of attention by exclaiming "Are you watching, Milwaukee?" Has anyone asked him about the comment, and did it attract as much attention out there as it did here?

JM: To be honest, no-one has even mentioned it I can see how it might have seemed a bit odd in isolation, but from what I recall, it was largely a reference to a discussion earlier in the game, about teams fighting in pennant races watching each other's games. I know there had been prior mention of Milwaukee, and someone on the team - forget who - had contacted our booth to confirm Greinke was pitching the next day. So it wasn't quite as much out of left-field as it perhaps seemed at the time. Obviously, Sutton has a lot of history in, and fond memories of, Wisconsin.and I really doubt it was a deliberate taunt, just something triggered by genuine excitement at an incredible comeback.

KL: J.J. Putz hasn't gotten a lot of attention nationally, but he quietly finished third in the NL with 45 saves and posted a 2.17 ERA this season. Has he been as dominant as the numbers make him look?

JM: Very close to it - that save number would have been even higher, if he hadn't missed 23 games on the DL in July [David Hernandez notched seven more saves in his absence]. But since Putz returned, the numbers have been insane: his second half ERA is 0.77, with three walks and 28 K's in 23.1 innings. No doubt, he's the main reason why Arizona is 84-0 when they lead after eight, and his split-fingered fastball is under investigation by the UN as a weapon of mass destruction. All told, I think these will be basically seven inning games, because both teams have excellent guys they can use to protect a lead beyond that.

KL: Would having homefield advantage in this series have shifted your expectations at all?

JM: Not enormously. It would have been nice to have, certainly, but Arizona had a winning record on the road (43-38). Where it would have helped a good deal is the offense, who score close to a run a game more at Chase Field than elsewhere. Conversely, our pitchers actually perform better away from home, though the split is a lot smaller there. But looking at the records, it was probably more important for Milwaukee - though if they don't use Greinke in Game 2, since he's 11-0 at home...

KL: Finish the sentence for me: If the Diamondbacks win this series, it's going to be because of the performance of...

JM: Ian Kennedy. In a short series like this, the performance of the starting pitcher in Game 1 - who will probably also be the Arizona starter in any Game 5 - becomes important in setting the tone. I'm sure the home crowd will be fully into it, and if we can take that opening game, it would effectively eliminate the Brewers home-field advantage. However, Justin Upton is also the engine-room that powers the offense, and him producing at the level we know he can, will also be key.

Thanks to Jim for taking the time!

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