Saturday, September 24, 2011
Three division winners worth waiting for
By Christina Kahrl
To see three teams clinch on the same night is one of those guilty joys of late-season baseball, but what makes it more interesting still is that the stories of the Brewers, Diamondbacks and Rangers could not be more different.
The Rangers were the easiest of Friday night’s three division-winning teams to anticipate, having already upset the Yankees last season to win the American League pennant. However, not everything went according to plan. They’ve had to deal with all three of their biggest boppers -- Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz and Adrian Beltre -- missing roughly a quarter of the season apiece. Happily, the offensive depth that GM Jon Daniels assembled and preserved so assiduously (adding Mike Napoli while not trading Michael Young) insured them against any extended in-season setbacks.
The other key to the Rangers’ success down the stretch was that the much-expected meltdowns of their younger starters -- Derek Holland, Matt Harrison and Alexi Ogando -- never occurred. It’s worth remembering that this same source of concern was with the Rangers in 2010, with rotation neophytes C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis. Thinking on that, perhaps it’s time to give manager Ron Washington and pitching coach Mike Maddux full faith for their handling of these pitchers while boosting their workloads. Overall, between the players and the brass, there’s plenty of credit to go around for delivering a decisive, Texas-sized repeat.
In Milwaukee, the satisfaction of finally winning the team’s first division title in almost 30 years is a matter of finally fulfilling the expectations associated with the Brewers' core talent since 2007. Losing their lead to the Cubs down the stretch run that season prefigured 2008’s shocking firing of manager Ned Yost with just 12 games to go. GM Doug Melvin went all-in that year, acquiring CC Sabathia, but their bid came up short.
If Melvin demonstrated a lesson learned from past setbacks and frustrations, it’s because before this season he had assembled a starting rotation built to win the division and run with the best staffs in baseball come October, and hired a manager in Ron Roenicke to help deliver it. America deserves to see more of Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun, Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks, Zack Greinke and Yovani Gallardo, and on October’s stage, we’ll all get to.
But between the Rangers’ repeat and the Brewers’ fulfilling a long quest, there’s the Diamondbacks, a team with as special a story as any from this season. As Keith Law noted earlier this week, many people can share the credit for this year's Snakes, whose assemblage of talent owes plenty to those who preceded GM Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson.
That’s not to diminish the importance of either Towers or Gibson, though, especially now. The bullpen overhaul so desperately needed after last season’s historically awful first-half relief effort was completed by Towers’ addition of J.J. Putz, but you have to also give Gibson and pitching coach Charles Nagy credit for the success of David Hernandez and Joe Paterson as Putz’s setup keys. Not every manager would have gotten good work out of this relief crew.
The success of the strike-throwing starting staff they assembled also wasn’t a sure thing, especially not in a tough park to pitch in like Chase Field. But Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson and homegrown Josh Collmenter provided the D-backs with the horses to run with where other teams had seen disappointments or a lack of dominating stuff. If Arizona’s 2001 champion was built around some of the game’s most famous players, such as Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, this year’s new crew blends in nicely with holdovers from the team that delivered a surprise division win in 2007, such as Chris Young, Justin Upton and Miguel Montero. It’s a platform of talent a team can win from, as they proved then, and now as well.
Where Melvin and Gibson deserve credit is with their in-season stewardship. Not every organization would have turned to Collmenter in the rotation or Paul Goldschmidt at first base. Not every team would have traded Kelly Johnson to get Aaron Hill to man second base. Not every team would have the courage to give Zach Duke another chance. They even had to endure a season-ending injury to Stephen Drew, who at the time looked like the one player they could least afford to lose. If you want hope and faith on the field as well as in the stands, the D-backs delivered both, proving that a team’s ability to adapt and overcome even the worst setbacks can surprise you.
As simple as it might seem that we’ve gotten three new division winners, and they’re all ones we’ve anticipated for weeks, it’s never that simple. All three make for outstanding additions to October’s field, but all three walked very different roads with faces old and new. If you haven’t gotten familiar with them before, you should -- they’ve been worth waiting for.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.