Even though the Game 5 extra-inning loss to the Milwaukee Brewers Friday night still stings, the Arizona Diamondbacks have ample reasons to be pleased with the 2011 season as a whole.
It's certainly no consolation, especially standing on the NLCS doorstep only to have the door rudely slammed their face. And especially since they fell down early in the series 0-2 and played valiantly with their backs against the wall in Games 3 and 4 at home to give themselves a chance to win the NLDS. And especially as they led almost the entirety of Game 5 in Milwaukee—something they had yet to do in this series—it genuinely felt that the D-backs were a team of destiny.
Still, let's not forget that this team finished last in the NL West last season and was out of contention by August.
To say that their rise to the top of the division, with the second-best record in the league, in just one season was unexpected would be the understatement of the year.
The following slides outline the reasons Arizona has to be proud of all they achieved in 2011, despite the disappointment they feel in how the season ultimately ended.
The Arizona Diamondbacks far and away superseded all expectations in 2011. As mentioned previously, they finished dead last in 2010, ending the season with a whopping 97 losses. Not only were they not expected to win or even contend for the division, most experts had them buried at the bottom of NL West again.
They turned in the epitome of the "worst to first" season, nearly flip flopping their win-loss record from the year before, winning 94 games and running away with the West. Even the most die-hard D-backs fans never saw this coming.
The fact that this team bonded together and outperformed all expectations placed on them (outside of the clubhouse, anyway) is something of which they can be exceedingly proud.
Justin Upton has emerged as the superstar the D-backs were waiting for him to become.
Notoriety has always surrounded Upton, partially due to his older brother BJ also being a star in the big leagues, and partially because he was highly touted coming out of high school and on everyone's draft radar.
Still, the D-backs have waited patiently for Upton's play to match the hype and expectations that accompany him. In the past, there has always been something holding him back from reaching his full potential: being over-aggressive, having minor nagging injuries, adjusting to the MLB learning curve. But that is no longer the case.
Justin Upton has arrived.
In 2011 Upton lead the team in every major offensive category (except stolen bases—he had 21 to Chris Young's 22). He batted .289 with 31 home runs with 88 RBI, slugged a whopping .898, and was third in the NL in runs scored with 105.
The fact that Upton has now come into his own and has proven that his production can carry this team into the postseason is wonderful news for the D-backs, for this year and beyond.
In keeping with the theme of superseding expectations, when the D-backs acquired Daniel Hudson from the Chicago White Sox and Ian Kennedy from the New York Yankees, they truly believed that they had found some diamonds in the rough.
Hudson's rise to dominance may be less of a surprise, as he was a heralded prospect with Chicago, but for some reason the South Siders didn't like him more than Carlos Quentin. Hudson had a stellar conclusion to the 2010 campaign, going 7-1 after being called up to the D-backs mid year.
After being a highly touted draft pick with New York, Kennedy had failed to realize his potential, amassing a record of 1-4 over three seasons. The D-backs essentially stalked Kennedy in the winter leagues, and they were easily able to convince New York to part with him. Perhaps what they did not expect was that Kennedy's turnaround would be so dramatic. He led the team in all pitching categories and won 21 games in 2011, putting himself firmly in the discussion for the NL Cy Young award.
Going forward, the D-backs hold a pair of aces, and young aces at that. Hudson and Kennedy are 24 and 26 years old, respectively, and that bodes well for Arizona maintaining starting pitching dominance for years to come.
The votes are in. Kirk Gibson is the NL Manager of the Year.
If for some reason this doesn't happen, it would be a travesty.
Some may argue for Brewers manager Ron Roenicke, the only other choice that makes much sense, but Roenicke inherited a club with far more talent, and most people expected the Brewers to contend, if not win the NL Central outright.
No one imagined the D-backs would have this kind of pronounced turnaround, and much of it can be attributed directly to Gibson and his staff. Perhaps some thought Gibson would eventually right the ship in Arizona, but no one expected it would come this quickly and this dramatically.
Gibson surrounded himself with former all-star players who still have a passion to coach and to teach the game: Don Baylor, Alan Trammell, Eric Young, Matt Williams, and Charles Nagy. The effect of their combined leadership and experience on the young D-backs nucleus has been monumental.
Knowing that this super coaching staff, led by Gibson, is in place and already has one division title under its belt leaves the D-backs in very good shape for the future.
Going forward, the D-backs have a lot to look forward to: they have a young offensive nucleus that now has experienced winning the division and playing in the postseason, a young core of starting pitching talent and depth, and a super staff of coaches led by hard-nosed manager Kirk Gibson to keep the team aggressive and attentive to details.
With the success, achievements and experience they have amassed in 2011, the sky is the limit for the D-backs going forward. Postseason baseball could easily become an expected desert norm for the near future.