PHOENIX – As the Diamondbacks walked off the Chase Field turf Wednesday night, there was a blend of pride, agony, gloom and hope from the players, coaching staff and Arizona faithful, as the team’s miraculous and sometimes chaotic 2023 season run came to a close.
The Diamondbacks entered the year as a young squad with few expectations, just two years removed from their 110-loss season in 2021. They went through the roller coaster of emotions that can occur throughout any season, with boisterous highs from battling for the National League West lead with the Los Angeles Dodgers, to the crushing lows of a 3-17 streak in late July.
And yet, manager Torey Lovullo’s squad kept answering back in its own inspiring, captivating way.
But in the World Series, the Diamondbacks met a question they couldn’t solve: How to keep the Texas Rangers from winning on the road.
The Diamondbacks dropped three straight at Chase Field, their home turf, giving Texas its first World Series championship in the franchise’s 63-year history. Even though Diamondbacks starter Zac Gallen spun a no-hitter through six innings in Wednesday night’s Game 5, the Rangers finally cracked his code and won, 5-0, initiating a raucous on-field celebration for the visitors.
Lovullo was emotional after stepping off what he best described as “your favorite roller coaster that you never want to get off of.”
“This is painful. This is just plain painful. And I can’t quite move past that right now. But I will,” Lovullo said after the Diamondbacks’ bid to replicate their World Series title run from 2001 fell short.
Arizona snuck into the postseason after losing four consecutive games to end the regular season, earning the final National League wild-card spot with a 84-78 record. Then, the chaos began, as the team went on to sweep the Milwaukee Brewers in the wild-card round, followed by a 3-0 sweep of the arch-rival Dodgers in the National League Division Series.
In the National League Championship Series, the Diamondbacks came back from a 3-1 series deficit to take out the heavily favored Philadelphia Phillies for the second NL pennant in franchise history. That chaos flipped Wednesday on the Diamondbacks, however, when the Rangers swept the road games after splitting Games 1 and 2 in Texas, to disconnect the “Answerbacks” and thwart Arizona’s bid for a second championship.
A common theme for the Diamondbacks throughout the regular season was the lack of run support needed for aces Gallen and Merrill Kelly, backed by stellar defense led by standout rookie catcher Gabriel Moreno.
Gallen started Game 5 hot, throwing a perfect game through 4 2/3 innings and a no-hitter through the sixth.
Arizona initially had plenty of opportunities to build a lead – chances the Diamondbacks had not seized at Chase Field during the World Series, scoring zero runs in the first three innings of Games 3 and 4 compared to 13 from the Rangers. Arizona struggled to capitalize on those opportunities again in Wednesday’s must-win matchup, going 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position and leaving 11 runners on base.
Afterward, Lovullo said that the plan was to put players in scoring positions despite the consistent execution not turning into any runs on the night.
“You could see we were very aggressive,” Lovullo said. “We just couldn’t find that big knock. That’s the difference in the game today. They did and we didn’t.”
The lack of clutch hitting eventually came back to bite the Diamondbacks, as the Rangers knocked Gallen out of the game and claimed a 1-0 lead in the seventh after an RBI single from designated hitter Mitch Garver. Arizona escaped otherwise unscathed but for only two innings.
The Rangers tagged on four more runs in the ninth inning off Diamondbacks closer Paul Sewald, through an uncharacteristic error by center fielder Alek Thomas and a two-run homer from Marcus Semien. For a defense that changed the trajectory of games through the postseason, the ball just didn’t bounce Arizona’s way.
“We tried to play fast. Defensively it means sometimes we make some mistakes, but we’ve been very good all year long securing the baseball,” Lovullo said. “The last two days we did not, and it showed up and made a difference.”
There was a feeling of hope in the final innings of the season’s final game from Arizona fans, who were accustomed to the team’s reputation to battle late in games as the “Answerbacks.”
Rangers relievers Aroldis Chapman and Josh Sborz silenced that feeling, throwing a combined scoreless final three innings, only giving up a single to Alek Thomas and a walk while striking out five.
The entire postseason, Arizona channeled the chaos it had embraced through much of the summer. That chaos in the Fall Classic was consumed by the Rangers at Chase Field, capping the organization’s historic 11-0 record on the road this postseason.
Even though the season did not end the way this young Diamondbacks squad dreamed, Lovullo preached that this is the start of a new era for baseball in the Valley.
“This group has grown up. And there’s a certain type of glue that’s going to hold them together and that’s called something – it’s called being in the World Series, but not winning the world championship,” Lovullo said.
The impact the team had on the Valley and beyond has been palpable this postseason run, something that Gallen and Lovullo appreciate.
“I hope the city of Phoenix, I hope the state is proud of us and enjoyed this journey we were on because this was special,” Gallen said. “Hopefully next time around we’re ending with champagne on the last day of the year.”
Added Lovullo: “We care about this baseball community. We care about the fans of Arizona that bleed Sedona red with us, that have backed us.”
Arizona’s bullpen struggled at times during the World Series. Sewald blew the save in Game 1 by giving up a two-run home run to Corey Seagar, the eventual World Series MVP. Game 5 rocked a familiar tune.
Sewald reflected on the series and the Diamondbacks season as a whole during his postgame interviews, then transitioned his focus to preparing for next season.
“We gave it everything we had until the very last pitch,” Sewald said. “You’re trying to build off it, that’s the key especially if you don’t win. We obviously have some motivation to try to get back here.”
The attention now transitions to next season, with spring training starting in just over three months. Even with the harsh end of the season for Sewald, Lovullo already knows who his closer will be come February.
“You guys always ask me towards the end of spring training, who is our closer. I’ll probably tell you right now it’s going to be Paul Sewald next year, because that’s my gut feel. That’s how much I believe in him,” Lovullo said.
Multiple players from the Diamondbacks’ pennant-winning run enter the 2024 season as free agents, including Tommy Pham and Evan Longoria, who were both pivotal players this postseason.
The club will also have a large number of discussions with several key players eligible for arbitration this offseason, including Sewald, Gallen, reliever Joe Mantiply, outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and first baseman Christian Walker.
Lovullo may have contract talks of his own with Diamondbacks general manager Mike Hazen this offseason, as Lovullo enters his final year of his current contract, after signing a one-year extension in June.
In a season that started with virtually no World Series title expectations, the Diamondbacks battled time and time again, reigniting the love of baseball throughout Arizona.
On the sport’s biggest stage, the chaos that brought the gritty ballclub three wins away from a title was contained by the Rangers.
But just like the inspiring ups and torturous downs the Diamondbacks went through this season, the 2023 season marks just another chapter in what may turn into a promising new story in the desert.
“I think you’re going to see a very passionate, hungry baseball team walk into Salt River Field next year and be ready to go,” Lovullo said.