NL Division Series Preview: Brewers vs. Diamondbacks

PHOENIX, AZ: Infielder Ryan Roberts #14 of the Arizona Diamondbacks tags out Rickie Weeks #23 of the Milwaukee Brewers during the second inning of the Major League Baseball game at Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Brewers are famous for their big boppers, but they're actually keyed by their outstanding starting pitchers. Will that be enough to beat the Arizona Cinderfellas?

Here's a question that maybe no one has asked yet ... Which is the more unlikely postseason team? The Tampa Bay Rays, or the Arizona Diamondbacks?

The answer, of course, depends entirely upon where you start the clock.

If you start the clock in early September, when the Rays were hopelessly out of the contention and the Diamondbacks were semi-comfortably ahead of the Giants, then the answer is obviously the Rays.

If you start the clock in early April, though? Leaving aside the Rays' 0-6 start, they were generally expected to be competitive this season, and given just a few breaks might even find themselves in the hunt for the Wild Card down the stretch. Which is, after more twists and turns than an Escher poster, exactly what happened.

Meanwhile, the Diamondbacks were the consensus choice for last place in the National League West. Arizona lost 97 games in 2010, and didn't exactly shake things up over the winter. Fiery Kirk Gibson was in the dugout this spring, but he'd been in the dugout in the second half of last season, with little apparent effect.

Then, 2011.

In 2010, the Diamondbacks -- who play their home games in a hitter-friendly ballpark -- finished eighth in the National League in scoring; in 2011, they finished second in the league.

In 2010, the Diamonbacks' starting pitchers finished 13th in the league in ERA; in 2011, they finished ninth.

In 2010, the Diamondbacks' relief pitchers finished 15th in the league in ERA; in 2011, they finished 10th.

But simple rankings can deceive, and those relief rankings really just hint at the improvement. Arizona's relief corps racked up a 5.74 ERA in 2010; the 14th-ranked Cubs were more than a full run better, at 4.72. Though the D'backs' relief ERA this season is just five spots better than last, their 3.71 ERA is more than two full runs better than last year's.

The Diamondbacks' bullpen has been solid this season, on par with their hitting and baserunning ...

Head2head_brewers_dbacks_medium

Their defense has been better, too. Not a lot better. But better. Basically, what's happened this season is simple: the Diamondbacks improved everywhere, across the board. They don't do anything brilliantly, but they do everything well.

Well, almost everything. Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson have garnered some acclaim, and deservedly so. But the Diamondbacks' starting pitchers, as a group, have not been particularly good. Relative to everyone else on the team, anyway. Once you get past Kennedy and Hudson, the D'backs have relied on Joe Saunders, rookie Josh Collmenter, and a variety of fill-ins for the rotation's No. 5 slot.

Of course, in October the No. 5 starters are irrelevant, which only makes the Diamondbacks look better.

Meanwhile, the Brewers look even more well-rounded than the Diamondbacks.

The Brewers do hit more home runs than the Diamondbacks, and steal many fewer bases. But if the Brewers have one obvious advantage, it's that while the D'backs have two excellent starting pitchers, the Brewers have three: Yovani Gallardo, Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke. Oh, and their No. 4 (Randy Wolf) is pretty good, too. Being the home team might be a good thing, too; this season the Brewers went 57-24 at Miller Park, and no other team in the major leagues won more than 52 at home.

Game 1 seems pretty important, to me at least. If the Brewers' big boppers can bloody Ian Kennedy's nose, the Brewers will have a huge edge the rest of the way. If the Diamondbacks can bloody Yovani Gallardo's, the series is up for grabs and the Cinderellas can put off midnight for at least a while longer.

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