PHOENIX — On the final day of the 2011 regular season, Evan Longoria hit one of the biggest home runs in Tampa Bay Rays history, an extra-inning drive that hooked inside the left-field foul pole to walk off the New York Yankees and clinched for the Rays an American League wild-card spot.
Twelve years later, Longoria, in his 16th season, may have produced the biggest play in a defining stretch that could send the Arizona Diamondbacks to their first postseason since 2017. It wasn’t a home run or even a base hit. It was simply a 13th-inning sprint from second base and a headfirst slide, Longoria stretching his left hand around the tag of Chicago catcher Yan Gomes to score the winning run in Saturday’s thrilling win over the Cubs.
A wild finish to a wild game! ? pic.twitter.com/deN48nEU6M
— Arizona Diamondbacks (@Dbacks) September 17, 2023
“That tells you how bad this team wants it,” Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said. “You got Evan Longoria, 37 years old, he’ll never slide headfirst for anything else in his life ever again besides a professional baseball game. It’s amazing to watch him do that. That’s a commitment.”
Arizona, a club that’s struggled during the season’s second half, has gotten hot at the right time. Coming off a sweep of the Cubs, the team’s first three-game sweep since June, the Diamondbacks (79-72) hold the National League’s second wild-card spot with 11 games left.
Arizona on Tuesday opens a two-game series against the San Francisco Giants at Chase Field. From there the Diamondbacks have three-game road sets against the Yankees and White Sox before wrapping up the regular season with three against Houston at home.
“We have nothing to lose,” Longoria said. “Really all that people can say is we exceeded expectations this year — to this point. Now let’s go out and win it all and shock everybody.”
The NL wild-card race is positioned for a wild finish. At 82-68, the Philadelphia Phillies are in solid shape, but the battle for the second and third spots is intense. The Diamondbacks, Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Miami Marlins and Giants are separated by 2.5 games. A final surge could make the difference, which is what makes Arizona so fascinating.
Just five days ago, the Diamondbacks, after taking three of four from the Cubs at Wrigley Field, lost three of four to the struggling Mets. With top pitchers Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly on the mound for the final two, they were outscored 18-2. The effort wasn’t encouraging.
Lovullo sensed the frustration. He could see it on the faces of his players. Adding to the misery: When the Diamondbacks got to the airport to return to the desert, they were delayed an hour because of Vice President Kamala Harris’ travels. (Apparently, not all players were aware of the reason for the delay, which they found annoying. “The frustrating moment for me was not being able to watch ‘Thursday Night Football,’'” outfielder Alek Thomas said. “It wasn’t loading on the tarmac.”)
Before the first game of the Cubs series, Lovullo delivered a simple message in the Arizona clubhouse: “Give me everything you got for 14 days. Give me your best 14. Do it for me. Do it for the coaches that are training and talking to you. Do it for your brother that’s sitting next to you.”
In his pregame media briefing, Lovullo said that had someone told him during spring training that Arizona would be in this position, battling for a playoff spot with two weeks to go, he’d be the first to sign up. This is part in reference to preseason expectations for the Diamondbacks, which were not great. (The Athletic’s Keith Law predicted a 77-85 record.) But it is also an acknowledgement of the team’s second-half struggles.
On July 1, the Diamondbacks were 50-34 with a three-game lead atop the NL West, but they cooled quickly. They went 20-31 over the next two months. On Aug. 11, Arizona lost to San Diego, its ninth setback in a row, to fall two games below .500. Lovullo told reporters he thought the Diamondbacks had gotten too predictable in their approach at the plate. “We got to get this thing turned around somehow, someway,” he said.
That they’ve done so shows resilience. The bullpen, an issue for months, has settled. Over the last 13 games, the group has a 2.00 ERA, which has allowed Lovullo to make moves earlier than usual. In Friday’s win over the Cubs, he pulled Brandon Pfaadt in the sixth even though the rookie had thrown 73 pitches and not allowed a run. In Sunday’s win, the bullpen pitched 5 2/3 scoreless innings.
Asked if he would’ve made the Pfaadt move two or three weeks ago, Lovullo said he felt good about the bullpen at that time. “Maybe two months ago? Probably no,” he said.
Despite the Cubs sweep, this team can be difficult to trust. After taking three of four from Cincinnati last month, they lost five of six and were swept by the Dodgers. After winning three of four at Wrigley, they looked terrible against the Mets. In addition, Arizona’s minus-26 run differential does not inspire confidence. It reflects an average team.
Not that the Diamondbacks care.
“Even with some ups and downs in the second half, we’re right there,” said closer Paul Sewald, acquired from Seattle at the trade deadline. “That’s just a credit to the way this team has battled. I don’t think we’re going to go down easily.”
First baseman Christian Walker agreed.
“You always want to address weaknesses, but at a certain point, especially late in the year, you got to buy into what makes you good more than trying to right the ship all the time,” he said. “We’re down to (11) games. There’s no time to grow. It’s all positive, it’s all fun, it’s all gas pedal for us.”
Exactly as Longoria showed in what might stand as Arizona’s biggest play over its biggest stretch.
(Photo of the Diamondbacks celebrating Saturday’s walk-off win: Ross D. Franklin / AP)