Kirk Gibson understands as well as anyone that the improbable can happen for baseball. All he has to do is think back to Game One of the 1988 World Series, when he hit one of the most unlikely and dramatic home runs in baseball history that sparked the Dodgers to an upset victory over the Athletics.
Gibson's playing days are long over, and he is now in his second full season as the Diamondbacks' manager. Yet he hasn't let go of the belief in the possibility of the improbable. His team won the National League West title last season with 94 victories a year after finishing with 97 losses. Gibson was voted the NL Manager of the Year and lauded for changing the mindset of the team and bringing more intensity to the dugout and clubhouse.
Gibson did not panic when the Diamondbacks dropped 11 ½ games off the pace in the NL West on May 22. The Diamondbacks were 19-25 and seemingly headed nowhere, but Gibson kept reminding his team there was more than two-thirds of the season to play.
"You've got to power past the negativity," Gibson said. "It's easy to listen to outside influences and get down and give up, but you have to keep playing. The one thing about our guys is they don't let anything bother them. Our guys knew they had to just keep playing and keep working and things would turn around."
The Diamondbacks have turned around enough that they are in contention in the NL West heading into the stretch run. They are in third place in the division, four games behind the Giants and 3 ½ games in back of the Dodgers.
Gibson has an edge to him like few other managers. He was a fiery player, is a no-nonsense manager—though he’s aware that he can't expect his players to match the intensity he had as a player—and has the cache of being the 1988 NL Most Valuable Player.
Yet Gibson doesn't live in the past. He doesn't regale—or bore—his players with stories from the glory days. Instead, Gibson is using a more modern message to get his players to believe they can return to the postseason despite once facing a double-digit deficit.
"When were the Cardinals 10 games out last year?" Gibson asked.
The Cardinals were 8 ½ games behind the Braves in the NL wild-card race last September 5, yet they rallied to gain a playoff spot on the last night of the regular season. From there, the Cardinals went on to the most improbable of championships by upsetting the Phillies in the NLDS, the Brewers in the NLCS, and the Rangers in the World Series.
The Baseball Prospectus Playoffs Odds Report gives the Diamondbacks a 22 percent chance of getting to the postseason this season, and general manager Kevin Towers was criticized in some circles for not adding pitching help at last week's trade deadline beyond right-handed reliever Matt Albers. However, Gibson firmly believes Patrick Corbin is ready to step up in the rotation in the manner fellow rookie lefthander Wade Miley has this season. He also believes that right-hander Trevor Bauer can get back on track at Triple-A Reno after a rough debut with the Diamondbacks last month.
A trade Towers was able to make, a seemingly minor one, has paid major dividends so far. Third baseman Chris Johnson, acquired from the Astros on July 29, has hit .345/.387/.897 with five home runs in first eight games and 31 plate appearances. That came after putting up a .279/.329/.428 triple-slash line with eight homers in 368 PA for the Astros. Johnson will certainly regress to the mean at some point, but he admits that jumping into a pennant race provides a mental boost after playing for the team with the worst record in baseball at 36-76.
"It's intense out there," Johnson said. "It's the sense of urgency. Guys want to get on base. Guys want to keep the line moving. Every out, every pitch, matters. Guys are taking this pretty seriously. It's a whole different world, and it's great to be a part of it. It's exciting to be playing for something."
A few minutes with White Sox left-hander Chris Sale
On talking White Sox general manager Ken Williams into putting him back into the starting rotation after he was briefly moved to the bullpen in April when he felt elbow discomfort: "It wasn't a confrontational-type thing, but I know my body and I knew I was strong enough to be a starter. I understand why Kenny and Robin Ventura were being cautious. I'm a young pitcher, and they don't want to overwork me. That being said, it would have been really difficult for me personally to spend the season pitching out of the bullpen when I knew I could be starting and helping the team in that role."
On if he feels he can pitch into October if the White Sox make the postseason after serving as a reliever in his first two major-league seasons: "I think I can. The White Sox have been cautious with me. They've given me extra rest when the opportunities have presented themselves. They are watching my innings and my pitch counts. I've got a little fatigued, but it hasn't lasted long and I really feel like I'm good to go—hopefully, all the way to the World Series."
On making the transition from reliever to starter: "It really hasn't been difficult. I was a starter my whole life until I got drafted two years ago and the White Sox used me out of the bullpen to make sure they didn't overwork me. I'm blessed to have a variety of pitches, which has enabled me to be an effective starting pitcher. I always felt I could succeed in this role at the major-league level if I got the chance."
On being selected to the All-Star Game and getting mentioned as a candidate for the American League Cy Young Award: "I dreamed about this as a kid. I dreamed about it every single day growing up in Lakeland, Florida. I think back to those days when my friends and I would be playing Little League and riding our bikes around Peterson Park and dreaming about playing in the major leagues. The dream actually came true for me, and now to even be mentioned among the top pitchers in the game is almost hard to believe."
Astros outfielder Brandon Barnes: "He waited a long time to get a shot in the big leagues—had about 3,000 at-bats in the minor leagues—so you really feel good for a guy like that. He might not get a chance with a better team, but he's in the right place at the right time, and I think he's interesting because he can get on base."
Mets right fielder Jason Bay: "The Mets should just cut their losses and release him. He's only a shell of what he used to be. Maybe getting out of New York will rejuvenate him, but I doubt it."
Phillies left fielder Domonic Brown: "Sometimes guys are late bloomers, and I think this is the case with him. The pressure is off now. He's no longer considered the best prospect in baseball. He's just another player trying to establish himself in the major leagues. The talent is in there, and maybe it'll come out now."
Royals left-hander Bruce Chen: "He's always been a finesse-type pitcher, but sometimes he gets so far away from relying on his fastball that he gets in trouble. Even though his fastball is below average, he has to use it to keep hitters honest."
Pirates right-hander Kevin Correia: "He's not a world-beater but the Pirates are willing to trade him, and I think he could help some teams. He's better than the No. 5 starter on some other contenders."
Nationals infielder Danny Espinosa: "There are times you wonder why they even play the kid, but then he'll pop a home run or get a big hit and you realize he has value. If he ever puts it all together, he'll be an All-Star."
Blue Jays left-hander J.A. Happ: "For me, he's a reliever. I know he had some success as a starter in Philadelphia, but that was a couple of years ago. He just doesn’t do it for me as a starter."
Yankees right-hander Phil Hughes: "For me, the one thing that keeps him from being a really good major-league starting pitcher is that he doesn't have killer instinct. He lets too many hitters off the hook with two strikes instead of going for the jugular."
Diamondbacks third baseman Chris Johnson: "I know he's been great for them so far, but it's a matter of catching lightning in a bottle. He's not a starting player on a championship team."
Rays designated hitter Evan Longoria: "I know it's not fair to judge a guy off two games after he's sat out three months, but he looks really rusty to me. I know they need him in the lineup, but I wonder how much he can help."
Cardinals right-hander Lance Lynn: "He looks tired. It's his first year as a starter in the major leagues, and he's wearing down. The Cardinals really need him, though. I don't think they get to the postseason if he flames out."
Rangers reliever Roy Oswalt: "I know he came out looking bad by not going back out for a third inning of relief in Kansas City last Sunday, but anybody that knows Roy O. knows he's not a clubhouse cancer. I guarantee you he didn't go back out there is because he felt he would hurt the team. It wasn't some kind of protest. That's not his style."
Padres right fielder Carlos Quentin: "I know there was a school of thought that the Padres should have cashed him in for some prospects in a trade but I think they made the right choice by giving him the extension. He's not a superstar, but he's a good hitter they can build their lineup around for the next few years."
Athletics shortstop Cliff Pennington: "There is no doubt he's a plus defender, but he's a zero at the plate, and the A's lineup is not deep enough to carry a zero."
Giants catcher Buster Posey: "It's hard to believe he had that terrible ankle injury last year when you watch him play now. He's playing better than he did when he was the Rookie of the Year two years ago. He's clearly been that team's MVP."
Cubs left-hander Brooks Raley: "I wouldn't worry much about him getting knocked around in his debut. A lot of guys battle nerves in that first start. He's got some talent, and I think he could be a No. 4-type starter."
Twins right fielder Ben Revere: "They don't have many young players to get excited about on that roster, but this kid is one of them. I love him. He can hit, he can run, and he makes things happen."
Rockies shortstop Josh Rutledge: "He has some pop, but major-league pitchers are going to figure out at some point that he'll swing at anything. At that point, it'll be up to him to adjust back. If he does, he has a chance to have a good career."
Brewers shortstop Jean Segura: "I don't know if he's ready to hit big-league pitching yet, but he's definitely ready defensively. I think he's going to hit in the long run, but it's going to be a tough transition for him."
Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton: "He's so special. He sits out a month after knee surgery and comes back crushing the ball. It's like he only missed a day instead of a month."
Dodgers infielder Juan Uribe: "He's fallen completely off the face of the Earth."
Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander: "I know he's a workhorse, but it makes me cringe when I see how hard Jim Leyland rides him. And Leyland saying he can throw 140 pitches in a game if need be is ridiculous. This guy is the franchise player, and you don't even think about taking those kinds of chances with any pitcher, let alone the franchise player."
Angels outfielder Vernon Wells: "I don’t see how he is going to help them off the bench. The Angels need to do what they did with Bobby Abreu: cut ties and send him packing with a nice parting of gift of all those millions still left on his contract."
Orioles catcher Matt Wieters: "He's just understanding what he can do in the major leagues. He keeps better every year, and I think he's going to have a major breakout next year."
Front office types' views
Braves: "There's something about this club I really like. You don't look at them and necessarily think they're the best team in baseball. But the closer you look at them, the more they look like they're capable of beating anybody in a short series in October because they have enough hitting and enough pitching to be dangerous."
Indians: "They are in a really tough spot. They don't have much talent on their big-league club, and they don't have anything in the farm system. If I'm running that club, I'm trading Justin Masterson, Chris Perez, and Shin-Soo Choo over the winter and trying to collect as much young talent as I can. They need to rebuild, and it's going to be a long process if they do."
Mariners: "If you squint real hard, you can see some progress being made, but it's going to take awhile before they are contenders. The big question is whether ownership still thinks Jack Zduriencik is the right guy to build a winner."
Red Sox: "They have to get David Ortiz back in the lineup and hitting like he was before he got hurt. If he comes back as a dangerous Big Papi, then they have definitely have a puncher's chance of getting one of the wild cards."
Reds: "They've lost four in a row, but there is no reason to panic. It's just a bump in the road. They've showed they can handle adversity with the way they've won without Joey Votto in the lineup."
White Sox: "This is a guarantee: Kenny Williams will make a significant waiver trade this month. He's such a competitor and wants to win so badly that he's not going to pass up on an opportunity to improve his club. He'll talk Jerry Reinsdorf into adding to the payroll."
In this week's Must Read, the great Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports looks at the 10 most club-friendly contacts in baseball.