The NL West will forever remember 2011 as the year the upstart Arizona Diamondbacks, predicted by many to finish last for a second straight season, won the division.
En route to—and since—Arizona's improbable championship were a series of franchise storylines, moments and memories.
From technological advances at Chase Field to an improbable victory over Milwaukee and a notable award winner or two, these are the Diamondbacks franchise's top 10 storylines of 2011.
For those unfamiliar with the name, Roland Hemond is a Special Assistant to Diamondbacks President Derrick Hall.
In February, the National Baseball Hall of Fame named Hemond as the second-ever winner of the John Jordan "Buck" O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award for "extraordinary efforts to enhance baseball's positive impact on society."
Hemond began his career as an assistant scouting director for the Milwaukee Braves in the late 1950s, and has since worked for the California Angels, Chicago White Sox, Baltimore Orioles and Arizona Diamondbacks.
He was Arizona's charter senior executive vice president from 1996 through 2000, returning to the team in 2007 as a special assistant to the president.
Hemond becomes the first active Diamondbacks employee to be honored by Cooperstown.
Roberto Alomar was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame late last year and inducted this past summer.
Alomar's time with the Diamondbacks was very short, joining the team in 2004 before being placed on the disabled list for about two months before being acquired by the White Sox on Aug. 5, 2004.
Still, Alomar is the first Hall of Famer to have ever played for the Arizona Diamondbacks—you have to start somewhere.
Whatever you do, try not to focus on the empty seats out in left field.
The Diamondbacks might have won their season opener on April 1, 2011 against the Colorado Rockies in extra innings, but they finished April with an 11-15 record, including a series sweep at the hands of the New York Mets and two blowout losses in three days against the St. Louis Cardinals.
After drawing a predicted sellout during their home opener on April 9, the Diamondbacks recorded an attendance of 20,729 the next day—and that was a Saturday night Game No. 2 event.
Sunday's attendance dipped below 20,000, while even the Cardinals arriving on Monday couldn't help the D-Backs draw a crowd: Monday's game saw a paid attendance of just 15,757, while just 16,649 tickets were sold for Tuesday's contest.
Even worse, Kirk Gibson was the first NL West manager ejected in 2011 when he was tossed by Bob Davidson for arguing a check swing call on Tuesday, April 12—the one with just 16,649 tickets sold.
Gibson was also ejected on May 29 by D.J. Reyburn for arguing a balk and on June 5 by Rob Drake during a game in which the Diamondbacks and Nationals took turns throwing at each other. Washington manager Jim Riggleman was also ejected for the same reason.
By May, the Diamondbacks were starting to get back on track—both on the field and off.
Off the field, the club modified their stadium gate opening times in an effort to ease giveaway congestion and provide season ticket holders with an added perk, making non-season ticket holders more likely to consider the benefits of committing to the team in the long run.
Additionally, the club launched both an Internet portal and Wi-Fi at Chase Field. At their portal, called Digital D-backs, Arizona provides fans with a real-time MLB scoreboard, video replays, Chase Field information and stadium directory, a public address closed captioning system and further information about the team, tickets and promotional information.
In a sense, the Diamondbacks hit an early-season home run off the field.
Whether Digital D-backs Wi-Fi had anything to do with the improvement of the Diamondbacks crew on the field is highly debatable, but the on-field product grew in stock just as the off-field presentation was rising.
By mid-May, the Diamondbacks had turned around their losing ways and were back at the .500 mark. By the All-Star break, Arizona was the NL West's second-place team with a 49-43 record.
Any time a franchise hosts a Midsummer Classic, that is a pretty special story.
Having won the 2010 All-Star Game, the National League was set to prove its previous year's victory was more than just a fluke win.
With the San Francisco Giants the reigning World Series champions, skipper Bruce Bochy managed the NL squad, naturally selecting four Giants pitchers to the team ahead of Cy Young Award candidate Ian Kennedy.
Arizona's Justin Upton and Miguel Montero made late-inning appearances, both batting out of the No. 6 spot.
From FanFest to the Futures Game (of which Paul Goldschmidt took part), the Legends & Celebrity Softball Game, Workout Day and the Home Run Derby, All-Star weekend's Friday through Tuesday run was a significant event for the entire city of Phoenix.
Perhaps more important than the game itself, the Diamondbacks estimated the All-Star game and its related festivities brought at least $60 million of revenue to the Phoenix area as fans supported local businesses, stayed in local hotels, rode taxis and otherwise contributed to the Phoenix area's economy.
Returning to the issue of Bochy and his pass of Ian Kennedy, the Diamondbacks got the last laugh on Bochy and his Giants, clinching the NL West at San Francisco's expense following a Sept. 23 defeat at Chase.
The losing pitcher of that contest? Matt Cain, one of the four Giants pitchers selected as All-Stars in lieu of Kennedy. Closer J.J. Putz, who also was not originally selected to the All-Star team, picked up the save.
When I wrote about this understated statistical anomaly the first time, I called it "Grand Slam Goldschmidt," with "Round Trip Roberts" in reserve.
It all started with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
On Sept. 27, the Dodgers and Diamondbacks were in extra innings when one of the oddest—yet most delightful—sequences took place. The Dodgers scored five times in the top of the 10th to make the score 6-1.
In Arizona's half of the inning, with the Dodgers given a 99.6 percent chance of winning, one run scored followed quickly by a second. Then Ryan Roberts hit a walk-off grand slam to give the Diamondbacks a 7-6 victory.
Even though the Diamondbacks had already clinched the NL West title just days earlier, the team was playing as tough as ever, the crowd was as loud as ever and Chase Field was the best place to be in all of baseball.
Cole Gillespie hit a granny the very next day, setting up the NLDS with Milwaukee.
Down to their last few innings of playoff life in Game 3, rookie Paul Goldschmidt hit a fifth-inning slam, turning the game around and setting up the Diamondbacks for an improbable Game 3 victory.
And I'm not just using the word "improbable" because that's how Vin Scully called Kirk Gibson's walk-off jack in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.
To drive home their playoff mettle, Roberts did it again during another must-win contest in Game 4.
The probability of a team hitting a grand slam in four consecutive home games? One in 130,634.
The excitement that emanated from Chase Field in late September and early October reflects the grand occasion that would be the final four games played at Chase in 2011.
Whether mentoring rookie Paul Goldschmidt or simply running his major league club, Kirk Gibson was the best manager in professional baseball in 2011.
Gibson identified problems early on in Arizona's 2011 campaign, took appropriate steps to remedy them and produced a quality product, all while taking said quality product to the 2011 postseason.
Gibson crafted his 2011 success with less—the Diamondbacks payroll decreased by $18.5 million between 2010 and 2011, yet Gibson's approach in 2011 kept on shining through.
With youngsters Gerardo Parra, Justin Upton and Goldschmidt, Gibson managed his roster perfectly, pulling pitchers at the right moments and tweaking the lineup to best put the team in a position to win.
Gibson won the 2011 NL Manager of the Year Award in runaway fashion, beating out Brewers skipper Ron Roenicke and Cardinals captain Tony La Russa. Though Rays manager Joe Maddon was Gibson's AL counterpart Manager of the Year winner, only Gibson appeared on every single BBWAA ballot.
In his first MLB at-bat on Aug. 1, first baseman Paul Goldschmidt recorded a base hit against the San Francisco Giants. The very next day, he hit his first home run off ace Tim Lincecum.
Drafted by the Diamondbacks in 2009 out of Texas State University, Goldschmidt spent his early professional career in Single-A and Double-A.
In 2010, he won the California League's Rookie of the Year and MVP Awards, was selected to its postseason All-Star Team and was named a Topps Class A All-Star for good measure.
In 2011, he was both a Southern League Mid-Season and Post-Season All-Star with Double-A Mobile, winning second consecutive MVP and Topps All-Star Awards. He was also selected to play in the 2011 Futures Game.
Goldschmidt is featured in a series of highlights on MLB.com, and for good reason—he contributed greatly to the D-Backs' cause after being summoned in late 2011.
After batting .300 in 2009 with a .532 slugging percentage, 30 home runs and 86 runs batted in, Diamondbacks right fielder Justin Upton fell off the pace in 2010, hitting just .273 with a .442 slugging percentage, 27 home runs and only 69 runs batted in.
In 2011, Upton turned it around, improving his batting average to .289, recapturing his power with a .529 slugging percentage and .898 on-base-plus-slugging, hitting a career-high 31 home runs and amassing a career-high 88 runs batted in.
Upton was named to his second All-Star team in 2011 and won his first Silver Slugger Award in October.
Upton also was the fourth* most valuable player in the National League last season, as he finished behind Ryan Braun, Matt Kemp and Prince Fielder in the 2011 NL MVP Award race.
*Assuming the BBWAA or another source doesn't re-vote or otherwise strip Braun of his award for an alleged violation of MLB's drug policy.
When the 2011 MLB season finally ended, it was a foregone conclusion that Clayton Kershaw would be the NL's Cy Young Award winner.
Kershaw won the award, with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Ian Kennedy and Cole Hamels rounding out the top five.
Interesting that three of the top five Cy Young candidates play for Philadelphia...
In just his second season as a full-time starter, Kennedy was wildly successful, tying Kershaw for the league lead in wins with a 21-4 record, while throwing a 2.88 earned run average and 198 strikeouts with a 1.09 walks and hits per innings pitched rate.
Kennedy won MLB's Greatness in Baseball Yearly (GIBBY) Award for Breakout Player of the Year after leading his team to the postseason.
Kennedy's second half of 2011 was insane: He was 13-1 after the All-Star break, putting up an improbable 2.31 earned run average in August and 2.08 earned run average in September. His batting average against in September was just .203, while his walks and hits per inning pitched rate was a sizzling 0.89.
Kennedy's second-half momentum, much like the team's overall offseason momentum, suggests a strong 2012 is on the horizon.
When the Diamondbacks defeated the Giants on Sept. 23, they capped off an incredible season with the No. 1, three-word storyline: "Worst to First."
Arizona was not supposed to reach the 2011 postseason, much less clinch the NL West.
The same Diamondbacks franchise that finished 2010 with a 65-97 record, good enough for last place in the NL West, recharged, regrouped and found a way to finish with a 94-68 record, recording the best MLB turnaround from 2010-11 with a score of plus-29 wins.
It was a combination of everyone—Ian Kennedy, Paul Goldschmidt, Justin Upton, Ryan Roberts, Daniel Hudson, Joe Saunders, J.J. Putz, Kirk Gibson, the remainder of the roster—that finally got the job done.
It all came together for Arizona in the end, and while the Diamondbacks were defeated by the Brewers in the deciding Game 5 of the NLDS, the Diamondbacks had exceeded just about everyone's expectations.
With all of this momentum heading into 2012, along with the additions of Trevor Cahill, Takashi Saito, Jason Kubel, Jonathan Albaladejo and the re-signing of just about everyone except Micah Owings and Joe Saunders, the Diamondbacks are in prime position to repeat as NL West champions and even contend for a league pennant or World Series title.
Wouldn't that be something?