10/01/07 8:14 PM ET
Effort outweighs experience for D-backs
Despite few postseason vets, Arizona enters battle tested
By Owen Perkins / Special to MLB.com
Only a handful of Arizona's active players have ever even played in the postseason. But to hear Eric Byrnes tell it, the young D-backs club has already been forged by the fires of playoff-type intensity in a season spent defying expectations and winning the squeakers through fundamentally sound baseball and an aggressive attitude.
"Playing all the one-run games that we've played this year, and then having the division come all the way down to the third-to-last game of the season, that was huge," Byrnes said, as the club prepared for its first postseason in five years, before any active D-backs were on the roster. "That should give us a lot of experience in playing in those tight situations."
The D-backs finished the season with a league-best 90 wins, and they went 32-20 in one-run games, showing an affinity to carefully marshal their resources and deliver in the clutch, on both sides of the ball.
But even if the math makes them a favorite on paper, the D-backs have adopted a loose, care-free approach, turning their underrated status into a psychological asset.
"To tell you the truth, I don't think we have anything to lose," Byrnes said. "We've already exceeded expectations, so this is a real nothing-to-lose type of atmosphere that we're going to take into the playoffs."
In addition to Byrnes, Hernandez and Wickman, the D-backs clubhouse includes playoff veterans Tony Clark and Juan Cruz. But even with so few postseason perspectives, the opinions can vary widely on how best to approach these do-or-die games. On the one hand, there's the approach the D-backs have taken to get to the postseason, keeping it simple by focusing their scope one game at a time.
"You keep it in perspective," Clark advised. "Inevitably the game is played the same way. It's the distractions and extra-curricular things that tend to detour your focus. Other than that, you need to go out and just play and enjoy it. You're never sure when it's going to happen again."
But as much as these veterans attempt to emphasize the normalcy of the game, their own storied experience belies any idea that October baseball can be treated like just another game.
"I made the last out against Mariano Rivera in front of 56,000 people at Yankee Stadium right after 9/11," Byrnes recalled of his pinch-hit at-bat that ended the A's '01 Division Series. "You want to talk about playoff atmosphere -- I don't think it's going to get much more than that. But it was good to go through that. I had fun with it."
Leave it to Byrnes to find the fun in a primetime season-ending strikeout, but though he had two at-bats in that first postseason, Hernandez played a substantially larger role in his, going 4-0 with a 3.18 ERA in October of '97, winning both the NLCS and World Series MVP Awards as his Marlins went the distance.
"I remember my first, I struck out Barry Bonds," Hernandez said. "That was a good experience. I came in to relieve Al Leiter. I threw four innings and we won the game."
If showdowns with Rivera and Bonds aren't "everyday" enough for you, try Clark's first trip to October baseball. After playing 1,193 games before reaching his first postseason, Clark's long-anticipated immersion by fire was every bit the scorcher as Byrnes' and Hernandez's playoff debuts.
Having disposed of the Twins in the '04 ALDS, Clark's Yankees went up three games to none over the Red Sox before suffering the most astounding reversal in postseason history.
"We lost four straight to Boston after being two outs away from getting to the World Series," Clark said. "Having been that close to achieving the place you're trying to get to from the time you set foot in camp in Spring Training, and to fall short -- yeah, there's a lot of things you remember about it."
So though normalcy may be a worthy perspective to strive for, experience has taught these veterans that there's an undeniable dimension to playoff baseball that you have to be prepared for.
"It's a different game," Hernandez stressed. "It's two different games, the regular season and the playoffs. Any run will cost a lot. You don't see 14-0, 14-1 games in the playoffs. Every game is tight. The game is very intense. Every fly ball you hit, people get [worked up]."
If the playoffs are a puzzle, this D-backs club might be just the conundrum to match up against the inverted logic of October odds daring to be defied. Byrnes sees Arizona's daily grind mindset as a strength that can eclipse any lack of experience.
"You watch the way we run out balls, you watch the way we take the extra base -- I don't think there's another team in baseball that does the little things that we do," Byrnes said. "I've never seen a Major League team play this hard for this long through the course of the entire season. It's unbelievable.
"I think that's one of the reasons the numbers don't make sense," Byrnes added, noting anomalies like Arizona's being outscored by opponents, 732-712, while winning 56 percent of its games. "We really do give it that extra effort. Plus, this is a very selfless team, a bunch of guys that are looking out for the greater good of the team, which is something I think is very rare in professional sports these days."
Unlike the three years Byrnes went to the Division Series with the A's, when his team was expected to make the postseason, this year's D-backs wear their under-the-radar profile as a badge of honor.
"We still have an underdog status," Byrnes said, despite the D-backs posting the best record in the National League. "You got all these teams probably wanting to play us. That's fine with us. I'll tell you what, Arizona's not an easy place to play. I expect our fans to be out in full force through the course of the playoffs. I'm not necessarily sure that these other teams should want to come in to face us."
The confidence personified by postseason newbies like Brandon Webb, who promised, "I'll be ready to kick the butt off someone" in his Game 1 start at home, is exactly what Hernandez sees as a necessary mindset for October baseball.
"Nobody's better [than us] -- you have to think like that," Hernandez said. "It's about how you play the game. This is a young team, but more important, everybody is like family. Play hard, play smart, play every day, and give 100 percent on the field. That's what's most important for a team."
It's a formula that's worked all season long for Arizona and an approach that kept the club in first place for all but a day since July 31, fending off all comers and surviving a thrilling chase to the wire. Manager Bob Melvin established the standard, and the likes of Byrnes, Hernandez and Clark have exemplified its execution on the field.
"We've got one game to play at a time and let the cards fall where they may," Clark said. "I don't expect the guys' focus or commitment to be any different than it has been for these last 162."
Owen Perkins is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.