Forty minutes before they took the field in Cincinnati on July 18, the Arizona Diamondbacks received welcome news. They were all assembled inside the visiting clubhouse at Great American Ball Park, browsing their phones, playing cards, when a Twitter report that the team had made a big trade caught shortstop Chris Owings’ eye.
“Hey guys,” Owings said nonchalantly, according to teammates. “We just got J.D. Martinez.”
At first, his fellow players did not say much. False reports happen. Martinez was the top hitter thought to be available on the trade market, and the Diamondbacks have not made a habit of acquiring prominent players on expiring contracts.
Seconds later, the news shot across the MLB Network ticker on the clubhouse televisions. Surprise and elation ensued. Soon, the Diamondbacks emerged energized and thrashed the Reds 11-2. They had scored 10 runs in their five previous games, all losses, as their extended run to start this season finally faded.
“This is a top hitter in the game,” said Archie Bradley, Arizona’s dominant setup man. “To think that we added him to our lineup — we already believed in ourselves, but when you add a player like that and you see the front office working, it’s like, they believe in you too.”
This week, Martinez’s navy blue Tigers suitcase still sat in Chase Field’s home clubhouse, supplying a reminder of his new team’s new situation. Usually, it is the Diamondbacks who sell off their players at midseason. They have not won more games than they’ve lost since 2011.
But by pairing Martinez with MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt, the Diamondbacks now boast a vicious duo in the middle of their lineup. Even when using advanced statistics adjusted for ballparks to account for the Chase Field advantage, no other National League team has two hitters who have been as good this season. (In the American League, the Houston Astros have an unbelievable four.)
Around Goldschmidt and Martinez, the Diamondbacks offer dynamic outfielders A.J. Pollock and David Peralta and productive third baseman Jake Lamb. For their careers, Pollock and Peralta have hit 15% and 16% above the major league average. Lamb, 26, was an All-Star this year and ranks third in the National League with 90 RBIs, one fewer than Goldschmidt.
Mostly the same mix of men (save Martinez) was awful last season, and the Diamondbacks were not expected to contend in 2017. New general manager Mike Hazen was widely reported to be seeking an escape from the massive contract the previous regime had handed Zack Greinke.
But the core stayed intact, got healthier, and played better. Greinke and Goldschmidt, in particular, have upped their 2016 levels.
“Nobody was paying attention to us at the beginning of the year,” Lamb said. “We didn’t care.”
The run began on opening night, when they staged a two-out ninth-inning comeback against San Francisco and closer Mark Melancon, the prelude to a 6-1 start. They went on to win 44 of their first 70 games. Even though they’d lost three straight to the Dodgers and Chicago Cubs, they entered Saturday on pace to win 90 games.
Still, the Diamondbacks are no better off in the National League West race than they were a year ago, obscuring the improbability of what they have achieved. They entered Saturday 17 games behind the first-place Dodgers. On the morning of Aug. 13, 2016, Arizona was, yes, 17 games behind the first-place Dodgers.
“If I’m the Dodgers, I’m not paying attention to anyone,” Bradley said. “What they’re doing is pretty incredible. Who cares about anyone else? But at this point last year, we had 40 wins. We were striving to not lose 100 games. And here we are this year, in a playoff race.”
Arizona’s primary catcher, Chris Iannetta, held the same role for the 2014 Angels, baseball’s best team that season with 98 wins. They were then trounced in three games by World Series-bound Kansas City, the wild-card winner.
“It was right around this time we took off,” Iannetta said this week. “We couldn’t stop winning, beating teams by 10, 12 runs. We clinched early. Then, the last few weeks of the season, we weren’t playing for anything, and it was tough.”
The Angels’ run began on Aug. 12, in fact. Including their win that day, they went 27-8 until they clinched a division title, then 3-10 until their season was over. Essentially, they got lucky early, and unlucky late. As Arizona traversed the first half this year, Iannetta detected similar good fortune coming the Diamondbacks’ way.
“I think it’s kind of like the static undertone in the background,” Iannetta said. “You just kind of understand that things happen like that. You understand that there’s gonna be regression back to the mean at some point. You don’t want it to happen. You do everything you can on a given day to prevent it, but we play too many games for there to not be regression back to the mean.”
It came in July and August. This month, most moves made by first-year manager Torey Lovullo have backfired. Earlier, Lovullo hit on everything, resting his regulars more than usual only to see his reserves star.
Now, the manager said, the extra rest will stop.
“It’s definitely go time,” Lovullo said. “My anticipation is we’re going to step on the gas pedal a little bit more than we have been for the first several months of this season. We’ll see where that leaves us.”
In a three-game series against the Dodgers this week, it left the Diamondbacks close. Though the Dodgers won twice, both teams scored 14 runs. In 13 games this season, Arizona has outscored the Dodgers by five but won only five times. The Diamondbacks are encouraged by their performance against the team they’d almost certainly face in the National League division series, if they stay on wild-card pace and win the wild-card game.
“People have been trying to make stories about our rivalry within the division,” Lamb said. “I see it as, that’s the best team in baseball, record-wise, and I think we have a really good team, and let’s see how we match up against them.”
Not well enough, yet. But they remain proud.
“I keep bringing it up, I know,” Bradley said. “But we are overshadowed. We won 69 games last year. Now, we’re winning. We’re winning series. We come into places and people are like, ‘Oh, we have to play the Diamondbacks.’”
Follow Pedro Moura on Twitter @pedromoura