- Associated Press - Thursday, September 15, 2011

PHOENIX (AP) - From the ashes of two miserable years has risen the most surprising team of this baseball season.

Just how the Arizona Diamondbacks became the runaway leaders in the NL West is a worst-to-first jigsaw story where the pieces somehow fit far better than anyone could have predicted. That begins with manager Kirk Gibson.

The Diamondbacks have acquired his team-first, grind-it-out, no-baloney mentality. Anyone venturing to ask Gibson about individual honors for his team does so at his own risk, especially any suggestion that he’s a shoo-in for NL manager of the year.

“He doesn’t like to talk about that kind of stuff,” general manager Kevin Towers said in an understatement.

Gibson has surrounded himself with an All-Star coaching staff of sorts, with his old Detroit teammate Alan Trammell as bench coach, Don Baylor, hitting coach, Charles Nagy, pitching coach, Matt Williams, third base coach, and Eric Young, first base coach.

Gibson said he learned most from Sparky Anderson, his Tigers’ manager. He will not tell players whether they are in the next day’s lineup, telling them to check when they arrive at the clubhouse. That way, he says, everybody is ready to play.

“There’s no question it shows I have confidence in everybody on my roster. They all play,” he said. “I told you guys a long time ago, I love my roster. You’ve got to keep everybody healthy. You’ve got to keep everybody engaged.”

Gibson, as any serious baseball fan knows, is responsible for one of the most iconic moments in the game’s history, his 1988 pinch-hit World Series home run for the Los Angeles Dodgers when he could barely walk, leading broadcaster Jack Buck to famously exclaim “I don’t believe what I just saw!”

The quote could well describe these Diamondbacks.

At the core of their lineup are a handful of holdovers from 2007, when Arizona’s young team advanced to the NLCS _ catcher Miguel Montero, shortstop Stephen Drew, center fielder Chris Young and right fielder Justin Upton. The rest of the roster is an assortment of players acquired in trades, youngsters brought up through the Diamondbacks minor league system and free agent signees.

Montero has blossomed into a leader, working hard to improve his defense while developing into one of the best hitters at his position.

“This is a team job, man,” he said. “When you work as a team, you always expect the best. We are so connected together. Everybody cheers for everybody. That makes it special.”

Upton, still just 24, is having the breakout year that always was expected of him.

“I feel comfortable with where I am, just realizing it’s a process becoming your own player,” he said. “The biggest thing for me is just enjoying the game every day, enjoying just going out there and relaxing.”

Arizona has come from behind in 44 of its 87 victories.

When Drew broke his right ankle sliding into home plate on July 20, ending his season, the common feeling was that the ride had been nice, but Arizona was finished. The Diamondbacks are 35-17 since then.

After Arizona went on a six-game slide in a rugged road trip a month ago, the lead over the Giants dipped to a game, then the Diamondbacks reeled off nine wins in a row. Punchless San Francisco couldn’t keep up. Heading into this weekend’s final road series of the regular season, at San Diego, Arizona has won 19 of 23.

The late roll coincides with one final roster shake-up, the trade of slumping second baseman Kelly Johnson to Toronto for second baseman Aaron Hill and utility infielder John McDonald.

The young right-handers at the top of the rotation, Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson, arrived via trade.

Kennedy, 26, came from the Yankees before the 2010 season as part of the three-team deal that sent Curtis Granderson from Detroit to New York and right-hander Max Scherzer from Arizona to the Tigers. After missing nearly all of 2009 because of an aneurysm near his right shoulder, Kennedy was 9-10 with a 3.80 ERA as a rookie with Arizona in 2010.

His strong spring led Kennedy to be named the opening day starter, and Kennedy took off from there, going 19-4 with a 2.99 ERA.

Hudson, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 232 pounds, came to Arizona in the middle of the 2010 season from the Chicago White Sox for Edwin Jackson and promptly finished the season 7-1 with the Diamondbacks. After a 3-2 loss to Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers on Wednesday night, Hudson is 16-10 with a 3.39 ERA. That’s after an 0-4 start.

“Our 1-2 guys are pretty damn good,” Gibson said. “Don’t tell anybody. Just keep talking about those other guys. Let our guys just relax and pitch.”

Good starting pitching doesn’t mean much if the bullpen is lousy, and last year’s relief corps in Arizona was historically bad.

One of Towers’ first orders of business when he was hired a year ago was to overhaul the bullpen, and he went looking for a free agent closer, one that Arizona’s limited budget could afford. That led him to J.J. Putz, a former closer who was the setup man for the White Sox last year. As closer for Seattle in 2006 and 2007, Putz was 10-2 with 76 saves.

“We had good scouting reports on him that all felt if you’d done it before you could probably do it again, given the opportunity,” Towers said.

Putz earned his 40th save on Tuesday night.

Of equal importance was the addition of Daniel Hernandez, the hard-throwing right-hander who has been the setup man for Putz and spelled the closer when necessary. Hernandez came from Baltimore in the trade that sent strikeout-prone third baseman Mark Reynolds to the Orioles.

The outcome of those moves might have been predictable.

Other contributions weren’t.

The Diamondbacks knew that outfielder Gerardo Parra had one of the strongest arms in the game. They didn’t know he would bat .300.

Ryan Roberts was the last player to make the opening day roster, and only then because third baseman Geoff Blum was injured. Now the multi-tattooed journeyman player is the everyday third baseman, hitting .253 with 18 home runs and 55 RBIs.

“Everybody that’s been up here that’s put on a Diamondback uniform this year has contributed in some way,” Roberts said, “whether they’re here now or are somewhere else.”

The infield corners were a big question mark coming out of spring. Roberts eventually filled one spot, with Sean Burroughs _ out of baseball for five seasons _ spelling him at times and doing pinch-hit duty.

At first, Xavier Nady had the job before going down with a broken left hand. Paul Goldschmidt, a big power-hitting prospect at Double-A Mobile, was brought up earlier than the Diamondbacks may have wanted. His first home run was a crucial one off Tim Lincecum at AT&T Park.

Lyle Overbay, released by Pittsburgh, was washing his car at home when he got a call from the Diamondbacks to be a left-handed hitting alternative at first base.

In his first start with Arizona, Overbay doubled off Roy Halladay in the ninth to give the Diamondbacks a dramatic win in Philadelphia.

It’s been that kind of year.

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