From 'Triple-A' team to contender in one season

It was about this time last year that Richie Sexson tore up his shoulder on a check swing, leading to one of the worst stretches by any team in recent major league history. Before long, seemingly all the Diamondbacks were hurt, they went 39-97 after May 6 and finished 51-111, 42 games out of first place and 17 games behind the fourth-place Rockies.

A year after going through 52 players, 16 rookies and three managers, the Diamondbacks are contenders in a winnable National League West. Entering Thursday, they were 20-15, one game out of first place in the division.

"We had a ton of injuries last year, we were a Triple-A team, something like 15 of the 25 guys who started the season with the team either went on the DL at some point, or had surgery," said new Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin. "Now we're back to being the veteran club we used to be."

The biggest difference, beyond health, has been defense. Last year, the Diamondbacks tied for the lowest fielding percentage in the major leagues, and led the NL with 139 errors. This year, they have made the fewest errors in the major leagues (13). The improvement has come mostly in the middle infield where reliable veterans Royce Clayton and Craig Counsell have been terrific. Catcher Chris Snyder is an excellent receiver. Troy Glaus, whose throwing shoulder was a concern when he signed last winter with Arizona, has had no problems with his throwing and has made all the plays at third base. Chad Tracy, a former third baseman, and Tony Clark have gone a good job at first base.

The improved defense has helped the Arizona pitching, specifically that of Brandon Webb. After an impressive rookie season, Webb led the NL last year in losses, walks, wild pitches and stolen bases allowed. "His walks went from 68 to 119; we think he pitched away from contact," Melvin said. This year, Webb is 4-0 with a 3.20 ERA. He has been slightly better than Javier Vazquez, who was acquired in the deal that sent Randy Johnson to the Yankees. Vazquez is 4-2 and in 51 innings he has eight walks and 51 strikeouts. That's quite an improvement from the guy who labored so badly for the Yankees the last two months of 2004. "Who doesn't struggle at times?" Melvin said. "He was pitching in New York. Everything is magnified there. He made the All-Star team last year."

Closer Brandon Lyon didn't even pitch last year due to injury. When closer Greg Aquino went on the disabled list early this year, Lyon was made the closer thanks in part to the way he threw the ball in spring training. He is 25 years old and already with his third major league team, but through Wednesday he was leading the major leagues with 13 saves.

"He has been phenomenal," Melvin said.

The Arizona lineup is filled with former All-Stars, led by Luis Gonzalez, who missed most of last season after having surgery on his right elbow. He is healthy. So is Glaus. So is new right fielder Shawn Green, whose shoulder finally healed the last two months of 2004. With those three in the middle of the order, the Diamondbacks have a lineup that is better than any that they used last year. Still, they haven't hit much, but that is certain to change.

What has changed most with the Diamondbacks is their attitude. They believe they can win.

"Inwardly, we like our club," Melvin said. "The guys who were here last year talk about it all the time. Look, we have a lot to prove as an organization. We lost 111 games last year. We're not that pompous to talk about contending only one year after losing 111 games."

If the Diamondbacks are to make the playoffs, they're going to have to make history. The record for the largest increase in victories from one year to the next is 36 by the 1903 New York Giants. If Arizona wins 36 more games than it did last year, it would finish with 87 wins, which, even in a relatively soft division, probably won't be enough. But there is hope. The second-largest increase ever is 35 wins by the 1999 D-Backs. They made the playoffs.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight.