The Arizona Diamondbacks are where few thought they’d be: The National League Championship Series where they’ll face the Philadelphia Phillies with the winner of the series feeling like a true team of destiny.
Arizona has swept the Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Dodgers to get to this point, yet nobody is picking them to advance any further. Arizona is also the biggest long shot remaining in the postseason, with +475 odds to win the World Series according to BetOnline.
To a degree it makes sense. The Phillies made it to the World Series last season, and have eliminated the Atlanta Braves–widely considered the best team in baseball this season–two straight years. Philadelphia has a really good team of their own. And when it comes to a series of “vibes,” the Phillies usually come out on top. The one team that could give them a run for their money in the vibes department is the team they have to face in the NLCS.
When the Diamondbacks were in Oakland back in May, someone with the team said, “this team just doesn’t quit.” A week later, they took two of three from the Phillies in Philadelphia. Amidst their own hot streak in June, the Phillies returned the favor by taking three of four in Arizona. This series will be closer than people expect.
Related: MLB Playoff schedule
Aces vs Aces: Arizona Diamondbacks match up
The projected starters for games one and two have been announced, and it’ll be Zac Gallen for Arizona in Game 1 facing off against Zack Wheeler in Philadelphia. The 33-year-old Wheeler has been an absolute beast in the postseason over eight career starts, carrying a 2.59 ERA with a 0.72 WHIP.
Gallen, 28, was acquired from the Miami Marlins back in 2019 in exchange for Jazz Chisholm. He has made two postseason starts, both coming this season, and holds a 3.18 ERA.
One factor that could work in Arizona’s favor is that their offense is seeing the most pitches out of every postseason team at 4.14, and that number jumps to 4.33 when the opposing starter is still in the game. If they can work Wheeler’s pitch count and get a little traffic on the bases, they could turn things over to the Phillies’ bullpen by the sixth inning. While that may not seem like a huge deal, in a seven game series, getting the opposing bullpen to throw more innings early and get some looks at them can have an impact later in the series.
Game 2 will be Merrill Kelly for Arizona going up against Aaron Nola. Kelly may not be a household name, but he’s had back-to-back stellar regular seasons and held Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman and the rest of the Dodgers’ lineup to just three hits over 6.1 innings in the NLDS. He’ll be ready for the moment. Nola, 30, is set to become a free agent after the World Series, and he’s putting on quite the show of his own in two starts this postseason, holding a 1.42 ERA and an 0.87 WHIP.
The key for the D-Backs offense will be to get some traffic on the bases, so if/when they do connect for a big hit, it’ll hurt more. Arizona will need to win at least one game in Philadelphia at some point this series in order to advance, and one of these first two games with their best two pitchers on the mound may be their best opportunities to steal one on the road.
Philadelphia Phillies star power too much to overcome?
A lot has been made about the Phillies just having too much star power to overcome for Arizona to have a shot in this series, but the D-Backs also hung four runs on perennial Cy Young candidate Corbin Burnes in four innings, including three homers. They knocked Clayton Kershaw out in the first with the Hall of Fame lefty recording just one out while giving up six runs. The duo of Betts and Freeman, two MVP candidates this season, had zero answers for Arizona pitching, going a combined 1-for-21 in the NLDS. Having stars is cool, but winning a series is better.
Arizona and Philadelphia have hit the same number of home runs so far in the playoffs, but the D-Backs have played one fewer game. Their team offenses are neck and neck, with Philadelphia at a 137 wRC+ (100 is league average) and Arizona at 133. Those are the first and third most potent offenses these playoffs. Philadelphia also has the best pitching staff with a cumulative 1.53 ERA in seven games, and the Diamondbacks are tied for second with a 2.20. These teams are evenly matched, even with Arizona “lacking star power.”
Arizona’s most well-known player, Corbin Carroll, is the frontrunner for NL Rookie of the Year and has a 26% walk rate compared to a 13% strikeout rate in October. He’s batting .412 with a .565 on-base percentage (OBP). He’s hitting like Bryce Harper but with none of the headlines surrounding him. He also stole 54 bases in the regular season.
Even with one of the game’s best catchers behind the dish in J.T. Realmuto, Game 2 starter Aaron Nola allowed a success rate of 80.7% on stolen base attempts this season, when most consider the break-even point to be 75%. Arizona ranked second in baseball in stolen bases as a team with 166. Game 2 could be the snake’s best chance to strike.
Eight different D-Backs have hit at least one home run in the playoffs, meanwhile six Phillies have achieved the same feat. The Phillies may have more star power, but Arizona could end up having the deeper lineup.
Arizona Diamondbacks’ matchups to watch
One of the players for Philadelphia that hasn’t quite gotten going is Kyle Schwarber, who is 4-for-25 with zero homers, a walk, a strikeout, and one rbi so far. If he starts clicking along with Nick Castellanos, Realmuto, Harper, and Trea Turner, then that’s a difficult bunch to contain.
For Arizona, their key player could end up being Lourdes Gurriel Jr. He’s 5-for-21 with a home run and four RBI, but he has had stretches this season when he has carried the entire offense. He may not have the same power potential as Schwarber, but he hit 24 homers in the regular season and batted .261 with a .309 OBP, which included a rough couple of summer months.
The other matchup to watch will be Brandon Pfaadt vs. the long ball. The 25-year-old made his big-league debut this season and surrendered 22 bombs across just 96 innings. With a team that has the potential to go deep up and down the lineup, how D-Backs manager Torey Lovullo utilizes Pfaadt will be interesting to see. Does he have him go one time through the lineup and throw another starter in there, or does he ride with the righty?
The one upside here is that Pfaadt didn’t allow nearly as many homers at home (7) in Arizona as he did on the road (15) in nearly the same number of innings.
The path to victory for the Diamondbacks
Being such big underdogs in the series, we can expect that Arizona will drop at least a couple of games, which means the longer it goes the better their chances are. Even D-Backs fans aren’t expecting to sweep this one, but a six or seven game series is entirely possible.
Their games three and four starters (presumably Pfaadt and Ryne Nelson) will be able to pitch at home. Neither starter’s ERA was better in Arizona, but facing the hostile crowd in Philadelphia wouldn’t be an easy welcome either. Winning one of those games may require leaning on the bullpen a little more and hoping for the best later in the series.
The most likely scenario for Arizona to pull off yet another upset this postseason would be to split the first two games in Philadelphia, split games three and four, and then take home the series with Gallen at home in Game 5, and then Kelly on the road in Game 6. In order for this to happen, they’ll have to make the most of the opportunities that they get offensively, and Gallen and Kelly will have to continue pitching like the aces they’ve proven to be.
It’s not going to be an easy series for either team, but it could end up being the most compelling series of the entire playoffs.
Jason Burke covers MLB for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.