PHOENIX — Asked whether he would play up the underdog role to his upstart Arizona Diamondbacks, Kirk Gibson initially bristled.
“Who says we’re the underdog?” the grizzled manager fired back. “I don’t think we feel we are. That’s the most important thing.”
But, the more Gibson talked, the more it sounded like he was relishing the role of dark horse.
After perfecting the chip-on-the-shoulder thing during 17 big-league seasons, it seems Gibson doesn’t mind if his team plays that way, too.
“We don’t need credit from people with their comments,” he said. “We just need to validate ourselves through our performance and if we do, they won’t have a choice to give us the credit. And if we don’t? Then who cares. We’ll move on.”
Gibson instilled an us-against-them mindset from the first day of spring training, telling his players to become their own experts, let their hard work and play on the field dictate where the team was headed, not where the prognosticators said they would go.
It couldn’t have worked out too much better.
Predicted to be headed toward another so-so year after a pair of 90-loss seasons, the Diamondbacks were one of the surprises of baseball, earning their first NL West title since 2007 on their way to winning 94 games.
Now, the team that had so few preseason expectations — even by some within the organization — is headed to the playoffs, opening the NLDS on Saturday at Milwaukee with ace Ian Kennedy facing Brewers right-hander Yovani Gallardo.
“The guys love it that way, flying under the radar so to speak,” said second baseman Aaron Hill, who came over to Arizona with shortstop John McDonald in a midseason trade with Toronto. “It’s been like that all year. They guys talked about how bad of a spring training it was and maybe they didn’t believe it was going to be this good, but at the same time they did all the little things right, kept grinding it out and never quit, and now we’re where we’re at.”
That never-quit attitude, one fostered by Gibson, is a big reason Arizona got here.
Making the cliche of one pitch at a time their mantra for the season, the Diamondbacks were the masters of the comeback, rallying from behind to win 48 times.
Arizona’s most improbable comeback win came in the penultimate game, when the Diamondbacks allowed five runs in the top of the 10th inning against the Dodgers and scored six in the bottom half, winning it 7-6 on Ryan Roberts’ grand slam and Gibson-esque fist pump around the bases. Arizona nearly did it again in Wednesday’s season finale, getting a grand slam from Cole Gillespie and a solo shot by Henry Blanco in the ninth inning before falling 7-5.
“It has been pretty interesting that it hasn’t been one guy carrying the entire team — it could be anybody on a nightly basis,” Hill said. “I think that’s a reason for a lot of their success.”
That and an everybody-gets-a-turn approach.
Playing with the confidence of a team instead of a group of individuals, the Diamondbacks spent the season as if they were on a hero carousel, getting regular contributions by players like Kennedy and Justin Upton to go with plug-into-the-lineup chip-ins by rookies like Collin Cowgill and Gillespie.
Gibson cultivated that approach, too, making sure everyone was ready to play every day by juggling his lineup and not telling guys they were playing until the day of the game.
“Just grinding it out, continuing with each pitch, that seems to be what we’ve done to the last out and what we’re going to continue to do,” Diamondbacks reliever Micah Owings said.
It still hasn’t earned Arizona much respect.
After spending most of the regular season as the underdogs, the Diamondbacks again are the team nobody is banking on, their odds of winning the World Series at 14-to-1 or worse, in the longshot category well behind the front-running Yankees and Phillies.
Not that anyone in Arizona is complaining, particularly Gibson.
“It’s a good position to be in,” he said.