No longer underdogs, D-backs plenty motivated
Surprise NL West champs not happy with just reaching playoffs
PHOENIX -- Last spring, with most prognosticators picking them to finish at or near the bottom of the National League West, it was not hard for the Arizona Diamondbacks to find motivation.
One year, 94 wins and a division title later, the D-backs find themselves picked by those same people to finish at the top, and a pair of respected national writers have the team making its first World Series appearance since 2001.
With their roster all but set heading into Spring Training, the biggest question became: Will the D-backs be able to find success as the favorite rather than the underdog?
"I think it's going to be a question of whether or not we are living on last year or if we're a good team this year," said Willie Bloomquist, who will start at shortstop while Stephen Drew recovers from last season's ankle injury. "I think to a man here, everyone in here understands that last year is over with and we have to continue to find a way to have that chip on our shoulder and play with that edge like we haven't done anything yet."
That kind of thinking has not been a difficult sell in a clubhouse that seems to regard last year, which ended in a 10-inning Game 5 loss to the Brewers in the NL Division Series, as almost a failure.
W: Kennedy (1-0) L: Lincecum (0-1)
SV: Putz (1)
"Nobody plays this game to make it to the playoffs," right fielder Justin Upton said. "You play this game to win a World Series. We feel like we have unfinished business. I think we had a good team last year and we've gotten better."
During the offseason, the D-backs retained all of the main contributors from 2011 while adding proven starter Trevor Cahill to the rotation and veteran reliever Takashi Saito to the bullpen, and they bolstered their lineup with the addition of left fielder Jason Kubel.
It was the Kubel signing more than any other that signaled just how much 2011 was in the rearview mirror, because it meant that Gerardo Parra, who hit .292 and won an NL Gold Glove Award, was now going to be a fourth outfielder.
The D-backs were able to survive the loss of Drew in the second half of last year, and they will have to find a way to do so the first part of 2012 as he begins the season on the disabled list.
The rest of the lineup is set, with finding playing time for Parra one of manager Kirk Gibson's biggest challenges.
Meanwhile, the rotation and bullpen look to once again be strengths, with 21-game winner Ian Kennedy taking the ball on Opening Day, and closer J.J. Putz, who saved 45 games in 2011, looking good this spring.
Still, the D-backs are taking nothing for granted.
"We're going to have to play better baseball than last year," D-backs GM Kevin Towers said.
Last year, the D-backs seemed to buy into Gibson's mantra of playing hard for all 27 outs, as they led the Majors with 48 come-from-behind wins. That's a tough formula to repeat, and Gibson would prefer to have less of a need for comebacks.
"We're hungry," Gibson said. "I think the thing that will be interesting to see is how much determination we have to try and find that magic we had last year, because you've got to go find it every year. It doesn't just fall into your lap."
Last year, the D-backs' season turned around on May 14, when they beat the Dodgers, 1-0, despite getting only one hit. The win snapped a five-game losing streak -- all of which were of the one-run variety -- and started a stretch in which they won 17 of 19 and vaulted into first place.
"There will be some tough times, and last year, one of those tough times was our defining moment," Gibson said, referring to the win over the Dodgers. "What's going to be our defining moment this year? My wish would be that we could start 35-5 like the 1984 Tigers, but the reality is, even in that season, we were tested. It didn't go smooth all the way through. I know we're a good team. I don't know how good we are, but our job is to motivate us to find out just how good we can be and just how far we can go. That's why I'm here, that's what I love."
Steve Gilbert is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Inside the D-backs, and follow him on Twitter @SteveGilbertMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.