If this playoff run by the young and hungry Arizona Diamondbacks has a familiar ring to Evan Longoria, it’s because the former St. John Bosco High and Long Beach State star has experienced it before.
Longoria was a 22-year-old American League rookie of the year on a 2008 Tampa Bay team that included 22-year-old pitching phenom David Price, up-and-coming outfielders B.J. Upton (23) and Carl Crawford (26) and an entire rotation of 26-and-under pitchers.
Those Rays won the first division title in franchise history, beat the Chicago White Sox in the AL Division Series and upset the Boston Red Sox in a seven-game AL Championship Series before losing to the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series.
Longoria is 38 now, the grizzled veteran of a Diamondbacks club that won only 84 games before sweeping a first-round playoff series in Milwaukee and pummeling the Dodgers 11-2 in Saturday night’s NLDS opener.
Among those leading Arizona’s charge is the fearless foursome of right fielder Corbin Carroll, catcher Gabriel Moreno, center fielder Alek Thomas and shortstop Geraldo Perdoma, all just 23 years old.
“Yeah, these guys do remind me of that Tampa Bay team,” said Longoria, a three-time All-Star. “We have some really good young players, and I hope this ends in the same way except with us winning the trophy and not losing the World Series.”
Longoria, a regular-season bench player who has emerged as the starting third baseman in the playoffs, made a leaping catch of a Tyrone Taylor line drive to his left with the bases loaded and threw to second to complete a double play to end the fifth inning of a 6-3 Game 1 win over Milwaukee in a wild-card series.
His RBI double capped a six-run first-inning rally in Saturday night’s victory and knocked Clayton Kershaw out of the game. Longoria has seen his young teammates gain confidence and grow more comfortable with each postseason win.
“The excitement of being in the playoffs for the first time, sometimes it’s hard to harness the pressure,” he said. “But we played really well in Milwaukee. That allowed some of the younger players to settle into the playoff atmosphere, and it only builds confidence and momentum going forward.”
The Diamondbacks are also fueled by what manager Torey Lovullo calls “a chip on our shoulder,” the age-old underdog mantra of “nobody thinks we belong here” playing well in his clubhouse.
“We hear the talk, we hear that we’re maybe like the little brother that everybody can beat up on,” Lovullo said before Game 2 on Monday night. “We take that personally. We embrace it.”
So much so that they outscored the Brewers and Dodgers 22-7 in three road playoff wins while playing with nothing to lose.
“Nobody expects us to be here — we’re kind of playing with house money,” Game 2 starter Zac Gallen said. “You see us play our best baseball when we’re playing kind of easy, carefree.”
The underdog/favorite dynamic can sometimes work against a team like the Dodgers, who have won 10 of 11 division titles and 100 games or more in five of the last six full seasons, but manager Dave Roberts said he doesn’t feel any more pressure because his club is favored to win.
“When you’re looking at [Game 1 winner] Merrill Kelly, who had one of the best years in the National League, and Zac Gallen, who has been in the Cy Young race the last few years, that’s a tall order for any team,” Roberts said Monday. “I don’t think we expect it to be easy.”
Roberts said it’s a “pretty safe bet” that veteran right-hander Lance Lynn, who went 7-2 with a 4.36 ERA in 11 starts after being acquired from the Chicago White Sox in late July, will start Game 3 in Phoenix on Wednesday night.
“I think for us it’s a guy who’s been there before and trusting the fact he’s going to pitch well,” Roberts said of Lynn, who gave up a major league-high 44 homers this season. “I feel very confident. That’s why we got him, to pitch big innings for us.”
Lovullo said he is “leaning toward” starting 24-year-old rookie right-hander Brandon Pfaadt, who went 3-9 with a 5.72 ERA in 19 games and was roughed up for three runs and seven hits in 2 ⅔ innings of the playoff opener in Milwaukee.
Rust never sleeps
The four top-seeded teams that earned first-round byes lost five of six games entering Monday, raising more questions about whether the current playoff format, which gives top seeds four or five days off before the division series, might be more of a detriment than a benefit to those clubs.
Max Muncy thinks not.
“The best team on paper doesn’t win in this game,” the Dodgers third baseman said. “That might be the case throughout the course of a year, but in the playoffs, it’s the team that plays the best, gets the hottest and executes their game plan the best. That’s one of the wonderful things about the postseason.”
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