Before the 2011 baseball season started, nobody gave the Arizona Diamondbacks much of a chance of finishing any better than third or fourth in their own division.
It made sense, as they were 27 games behind San Francisco in 2010 and 25 back of the Dodgers in 2009, and their offseason was more of an under the radar success than a free agency spending bonanza a la the Red Sox or Yankees.
Yet here they are, six games up on the defending World Series champs and threatening to run away with the division after ripping off eight wins in a row following a seven-game win streak earlier this month (sandwiched around a six-game losing streak).
I thought of the D-backs when reading the responses from the rest of the participants in this month’s 5-on-5 segment on the Suns in which everybody but me pegged Phoenix for a 2015 or 2016 playoff return.
The D-backs are just the latest piece of evidence that surprise seasons can materialize when all the pieces fit (along with just a touch of luck).
Everything important (save for Stephen Drew’s ankle) has gone right for the D-backs this season. One of the worst bullpens in baseball history now boasts five relievers with an ERA around 3, Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson have pitched like aces, Justin Upton has turned into an MVP candidate and surprises like Josh Collmenter, Ryan Roberts and Micah Owings have sprouted up all season.
In that way the D-backs kind of remind me of the 2009-10 Suns. After the Suns missed the playoffs in 2008-09 and then swapped out Shaq for nobody really expected them to be anything more than a No. 7 or 8 seed.,
But like these D-backs that Suns squad enjoyed a torrid second half of the season behind a team that was exactly that in every sense of the word with its 10-man rotation and the way everybody pitched in throughout the year.
We could debate all day whether winning begets chemistry or chemistry begets winnings, but both of those squads seem to have that extra intangible factor that often leads to overachievement.
We knew the Phillies, Yankees and Red Sox would be there at the end of the season. In the NBA, we know the Heat, Lakers and Celtics will be in the championship mix as well. Those teams all have enough talent that something would have to go pretty wrong for them not to have a shot in the playoffs.
In Arizona where teams don’t often lead the league in payroll, it typically comes down to chemistry.
The 2007 D-backs enjoyed that same special chemistry this squad has where Hudson tries to match Kennedy every time he throws a gem.
Sure, the 2004-05 Suns were loaded with talent, but the only other two Western Conference finalists of the Nash era (2005-06 and 2009-10) were plucky squads that came within a sniff of NBA Finals’ that few thought they had a chance at when the season tipped off.
This all isn’t to say chemistry will get the Suns back to the Finals anytime soon. There’s a reason that many doubt the Suns will return to even the playoffs for a good couple years if Nash cannot coax out another playoff run next season.
But as we saw in 2004 when the Suns staged a 33-game turnaround and are seeing with the worst-to-first D-backs this year, if you put the right pieces together with the right mentality in the right system, what appears to be a glacially slow rebuild can turn into the kind of special year where players take advantage of the most powerful motivator in sports, wondering why nobody believed in them.