How young Diamondbacks are handling 2023 playoff race pressure

AP Photo/Gregory Bull

AS THE ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS began a recent meeting signaling the start of a new series, one of the few veterans in a clubhouse filled with young players came forward to address his teammates getting their first taste of playoff race baseball.

"Don't take this for granted," third baseman Evan Longoria told the team. "Playing in September, with something to play for, is why you show up in February and March."

The Diamondbacks team that is taking the field this September has a far different feel than the one that showed up at spring training with hopes that the future would soon be brighter coming out of a three-year rebuild, but questions about whether they were ready to compete in a loaded National League West.

"When I chose to come here, that was part of the reason," Longoria told ESPN recently. "I wanted to be around a youthful group that had the ability to do what we're doing right now."

What the Diamondbacks do best right now is tailor-made for the style of play that MLB's new rules have fostered in 2023. They run, they field, they cause havoc all over the diamond. That athleticism -- along with two aces at the top of their rotation -- has propelled Arizona into the wild-card race, where it currently owns the third spot in a crowded National League postseason picture.

"We play fast. We play with a sense of creating chaos on the bases," closer Paul Sewald said. "We just go, go, go.

"It brings me back to the 2021 Mariners team [that I was on]. The industry didn't think we'd be great. Then we made a run. Maybe it's a year early, but we don't care, we're going to make a playoff run."

THE DIAMONDBACKS DIDN'T so much emerge as contenders ahead of schedule as they emerged as contenders when Corbin Carroll arrived.

After keeping pace with the Los Angeles Dodgers in April, Arizona caught fire in May and June, taking control of the NL West race with its 23-year-old Rookie of the Year favorite leading the way at the plate, in the field and on the basepaths.

"I enjoy it," Carroll said of the Diamondbacks' style. "I'd say that's part of our game. There's a bunch of different ways to beat teams. That's how we win. It's well balanced."

Over the past weekend in Chicago, the D-backs showed that the style of play that fueled them early in the season can still be dangerous this month -- and perhaps next. As the weather changed to fall at Wrigley Field, Arizona turned the series into a small-ball showcase. Carroll swiped six bases while he and his teammates forced bad throws, wild pitches and general chaos in taking three of four games against a fellow NL wild-card contender.

"He's so fast," Cubs starter Jameson Taillon said of Carroll. "We're so aware of how he is on the bases. We try to make the perfect play and the ball ends up in CF. He gets to third twice."

Carroll is on pace to become the first rookie ever to hit 25 home runs and steal 50 bases and has immediately become the face of a franchise that took a chance by signing him to an eight-year, $111 million deal just 32 games into his major league career.

"When an organization rewards him and shows faith in a guy with a contract extension like they did that early, I figured he would be a pretty tough out," Taillon said.

While Carroll's game garners the most headlines, he is joined by fellow recent top prospects Gabriel Moreno, Alek Thomas and Geraldo Perdomo, who have all turned into key performers for a team that got even younger when it called up 21-year-old Jordan Lawler last week. The front office believes its young players are ready for prime time and the numbers bear it out as Arizona ranks second in the NL in stolen bases and leads the majors in outs above average.

"You appreciate teams that play the hard 90," veteran Tommy Pham said. "It reiterates certain things as a player. It makes me play better."

THE FORMULA THAT carried the Diamondbacks to the top of the NL West stopped working for a bit midway through the season as the team went just 8-16 in July and lost their first nine August games.

As the losses piled up, the veterans in the clubhouse knew it was their time to come to the forefront to help steady a group experiencing its first growing pains in a season that now had the pressure of expectations.

"There wasn't any real panic," starter Merrill Kelly said. "Some of the young guys were pressing just because of the nature of the beast. Everybody was trying to be that guy to push us back on track. That might be why that skid lasted longer than maybe it should have."

While Kelly helped stabilize the rotation, Longoria leaned into his 16 years of big league experience to guide the lineup through the struggles.

"It's very hard if you haven't been through it, not to see the light at the end of the tunnel," Longoria said. "'Man, is this ever going to end?' Same with hitting. It can seem like you're never going to get a hit again. But once you go through it, and come out the other side, it's just part of the game.

"Winning is a skill as much as anything that we do."

Then, at the Aug. 1 trade deadline, Arizona added another veteran hitter in Tommy Pham, who has already emerged as a go-to voice in the clubhouse during his brief time with the Diamondbacks.

"Guys ask me questions and I tell them my thoughts," Pham said. "As an older guy, I reiterate why we do certain things every day. We're all excited to be in the race. Guys know this team hasn't played meaningful baseball in a minute."

As the games become even more meaningful over the final weeks of the regular season, even just watching a 10-year veteran's approach to key moments provides a valuable learning experience for his teammates going through their first postseason race.

"He's the guy we lean on for a lot of different reasons." Lovullo said. "It's the stability of the at-bat. It's the stability of the conversation. It's the professionalism he walks around with every single day."

LIKE JUST ABOUT every team in baseball, the Diamondbacks have their own ways to celebrate home runs and wins. First, they broke out the Homer Snake then added the Victory Vest, courtesy of another veteran, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. But Longoria didn't think it was enough. For a team not used to winning, he thought they needed more.

"We weren't really doing anything in the clubhouse afterwards to celebrate wins," he said. "Now we're doing that in here. I think that's a big part of coming closer as a group. Celebrating the big moments. We've had a lot of guys have firsts because we're so young. You become closer and learn something about them."

The latest celebration came after Lawler's first hit last week in the first of three straight wins at Wrigley Field. The volume in the clubhouse after each victory seemingly increased.

"We're starting to enjoy wins around here," Sewald said. "This team was used to losing games in August and September and we're starting to win games now. It's a reminder that wins matter.

"When you're rebuilding, you take them for granted, because it's not that important. You're not going to make the playoffs. But in a postseason run, every win matters. Guys are starting to get excited about that possibility."

The combination of young and old has meshed as well as any team could hope, with the youthful energy even rubbing off on the team's more seasoned veterans.

"It's like a bunch of Labrador retrievers chasing frisbees around the beach," Lovullo said with a smile.

Led by an emerging core riding its youthful exuberance into new territory and a small group of veterans becoming adept at picking the right moments to take charge, the Diamondbacks are focused on playing meaningful baseball deep into the fall.

"If you have a chance, you go for it," Pham said. "You just have to get in. We saw that last year with Philadelphia."

"Winning baseball is fun baseball." Carroll added. "That's all I care about. That was goal No. 1 coming into this year. Nothing else matters."