D-backs persevere despite key losses
Injuries to team's pillars not enough to keep Arizona down
PHOENIX -- In April, when October was still just a fall fantasy, the young Arizona D-backs had plenty of zeal and too many uncertainties, but at least they also had three pillars.Randy Johnson, the still-intimidating veteran left-hander, was back on the scene of his greatest triumphs. Orlando Hudson, the steady and spirited second baseman, was primed to reach his All-Star destiny. And third baseman Chad Tracy, who, while part of the young core, was coming off a season in which he led the team with 80 RBIs and ranked second with 20 homers. This was the nucleus that would pave the transitional road the D-backs had mapped out after a 2006 season of 86 losses, third most in the franchise's nine-year history. Then, one by one, the pillars were kicked out from under them. Yet the D-backs took flight, lapping the tight National League West in the final 10 weeks, finishing with an extended 40-24 spurt to take the division. On the verge of competing for a National League pennant in the Championship Series, it's clear that these D-backs won't reach a breaking point -- because they've already reached and passed it, three-fold. "It's been a tribute to the organization, the talent top to bottom, and the culture of expecting to win that's been created," said Tony Clark, at 35 and with 13 seasons' experience the old man in the clubhouse. "It's been difficult at times," said manager Bob Melvin, "but you couldn't hang your head about that. We had all 25 guys pulling in the same direction. "You can't cry over injuries. There aren't any excuses about them. No one's gonna feel sorry for you, because everyone has them." Johnson, unable to cope through a herniated disk, made his last pitch on June 28. Arizona was in third place. Tracy, hobbled by tendinitis in his right knee, played his last game on Aug. 12 (with the exception of one pinch-hitting appearance, on Sept. 16, which merely reconfirmed how crippling the knee was). Arizona held a slim one-game lead in the division. Hudson tore a ligament in his left thumb, the most devastating and untimely injury. Arizona was still up by one game, but was at the end of a 6-10 tailspin. Underscoring Hudson's importance to the club, he still finished the season ranking third with 63 RBIs, behind Eric Byrnes (83) and Chris Young (68). The loss of someone like Hudson should have greased the skids. Instead, 32-year-old Augie Ojeda stepped in as the regular second baseman and smoothed the frowns: From Sept. 7 through the end of the season, he batted .333 to raise his overall average from .231 to a respectable .274. "Orlando was a tough guy to lose," said catcher Chris Snyder, "but Augie did a tremendous job, and other guys also stood up.
"We've been fortunate to have guys who could replace others when they got injured, and do an incredible job. Like the starting pitchers [Yusmeiro Petit and, often spectacularly, Micah Owings] who filled the void for Johnson."Petit, Ojeda and his replacement as reserve infielder, Alberto Callaspo, all came from Tucson, at least a natural progression from Triple-A. But outfielder Justin Upton, the Majors' youngest player who didn't get out of his teens until Aug. 25, and shortstop Stephen Drew jumped up from Double-A Mobile. The upwardly mobile youngsters kept the D-backs rising, too. "It didn't matter who you were or where you came from. You were expected to contribute," said Clark, who occasionally felt like a relic around his teammates but, paradoxically, was also rejuvenated by them. "I feel old when I hear them talk," Clark said, smiling. "I've been married 13 years and have three kids, and these guys have girlfriends. But when I'm on the field with them, the passion they bring every day makes me feel young." Their youth perhaps is the very reason they have been able to persevere through those injuries. Jaded veterans may tend to overthink and overanalyze obstacles, recognizing a tough task -- or an easy excuse for not trying as hard. The D-backs "just play the game," you hear it echoed all over the clubhouse. "We have fun. We make it a point to have fun," Snyder said. "We feed off each other. We do rely on that, and it's an approach that would not be possible with too many veterans in the mix." An old sporting expression, predating the in-the-zone concept, holds that streaking players are "unconscious." In that case, the D-backs have been in a coma for months. They have also been blissfully ignorant of their surroundings, which, as perceived pressure rises, is not a bad condition. There was the time Chris Young was doing some pregame video scouting of the San Francisco Giants' starter, and something about Kevin Correia struck him as familiar. "Have we faced this guy before?" Young asked, narrowing his eyes. "Eh, yeah, dude," he was told. "You hit a walk-off homer off him earlier this season." Or, the time in mid-September when Mark Reynolds bounded on the team bus. The D-backs had just authored one of their patented comeback wins, in the midst of a fierce stretch battle with San Diego. "Did the Padres win?" asked Reynolds, who apparently hadn't even kept one eye on the scoreboard. No, he was told, the Padres had lost. "Well," Reynolds said, "then a pretty good day for us, huh?" With such an airy attitude, does this sound like a team that would cringe over the loss of three pillars?
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.