Diamondbacks’ Unlikely Playoff Run Reminiscent of NFL Neighbor Cardinals in 2008

The Arizona Diamondbacks are one win away over the Los Angeles Dodgers — whose logo, as iconic as it is, should really be swapped out for Barney Gumble holding his hands over his head and crying out in agony after once again knocking over a giant bottle of pancake syrup — from becoming only the third team in MLB history to reach the League Championship Series with fewer than 85 regular season wins.

But if the Diamondbacks, who finished the regular season 84-78 and as the sixth seed in the National League, can reach the NLCS, they’ll both have a legitimate stake as the unlikeliest semifinalist of all-time in any sport — and not even the least likely semifinalist of all-time in the greater Phoenix area.

The Diamondbacks spent most of the first half of the season atop the NL West but went 7-25 from July 2 through Aug. 11 to fall two games under .500. That 7-25 mark is the worst 32-ame stretch ever for a team that made the playoffs.

The Diamondbacks had the NL’s 13th-best record from July 1 onward (35-44, a whopping 18 games behind the Dodgers and its ninth-best record from Aug. 1 onward (27-28). When the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series after finishing the regular season 83-78, they stumbled into the playoffs with a 40-44 mark after July 1.

Those Cardinals also had Hall of Fame-bound Tony La Russa in the dugout and a core that possessed championship muscle memory. Six of the top 12 players on the ’06 Cardinals in WAR, per Baseball-Reference, were on the 2004-05 teams, which won a combined 205 regular season games and reached the 2004 World Series and 2005 NLCS. Two more top-12 players, David Eckstein and Scott Spiezio, won the World Series with the Anaheim Angels in 2002.

The Diamondbacks were a little better from Aug. 1 onward (27-28, the ninth-best record in the NL) and after Sept. 1 (15-13, tied for seventh with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who finished 76-86). In 1973, the New York Mets went 38-22 after Aug. 1 to win the NL East with an 82-79 record before pushing the Oakland Athletics to seven games in the World Series.

Those Mets were managed by Yogi Berra, already in the Hall of Fame for his playing exploits across town with the Yankees. And five of the top 12 players per WAR were with the miracle World Series-winning team four years earlier along with Felix Millan and George Stone, each of whom were on the ‘69 Braves that were knocked off by New York in the NLCS.

When the Philadelphia Phillies made a charge to the World Series as the NL’s sixth seed last fall, they did so off an 87-75 regular season and after finishing two games ahead of the seventh-place Milwaukee Brewers, whom Philadelphia outscored 28-13 while winning the regular season series 4-2.

So while the Diamondbacks are trying to match the Phillies’ feat, their fate would likely be much different if they’d lost to the Chicago Cubs on Sept. 16, when Arizona overcame deficits in the 10th, 11th AND 13th innings of a 7-6, 13-inning victory. The Cubs finished 83-79 and spent yesterday semi-cleaning house instead of preparing for Game 3 of the NLCS.

The closest comps for the Diamondbacks are from other sports — two of whom had or have a little bit of zaniness generally built into the format, a la baseball’s newly expanded 12-team tournament.

In 1981, the Houston Rockets went 40-42 before falling to the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals. The Rockets advanced to the championship round by beating the 40-42 Kansas City Kings in a six-game Western Conference final. But both teams advanced out of a best-of-three miniseries before upsetting division winners — the Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs — who’d each earned byes.

The 1991 Minnesota North Stars made the Stanley Cup Finals after going 27-39-14 and collecting 68 points in the regular season. But the North Stars didn’t even have the fewest points of any playoff team — the Vancouver Canucks had 65 points — in the final season of the 21-team NHL alignment in which the top four teams from every division made the playoffs.

The Diamondbacks’ kindred souls might be the franchise just down the road whose current players are already, as the D-Backs’ marketing slogan goes, embracing the chaos.

The Arizona Cardinals became the second team since 1978 — when the NFL expanded the regular season to 16 games — to reach the Super Bowl with fewer than 10 wins following the 2008 campaign, when they came within a miraculous Santonio Holmes toe-tap of winning the franchise’s first Super Bowl before falling to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 27-23, in Super Bowl 43. 

The Cardinals reached the playoffs as an afterthought after winning the NFC West — the franchise’s first division crown since 1975, when the team was based in St. Louis and played in the NFC East — despite the aforementioned 9-7 record and a point differential of plus-one.

Arizona was 2-7 against teams that finished the season with a .500 or better record (these Diamondbacks were 40-49 against teams that had a .500 or better record, including 22-34 against playoff teams).

The Cardinals lost four games by at least three touchdowns and fell to the Minnesota Vikings and New England Patriots by a combined 72-21 from Dec. 14-21, when they became the first team since the 1961 Oakland Raiders to trail by a 28-0 deficit or worse at halftime of consecutive games. And that wasn’t even their worst halftime deficit of the season: The New York Jets entered the locker room up 34-0 on Sept. 28.

The Cardinals opened the playoffs at home with what amounted to a vote of no confidence from the sportsbooks, who established them as a two-point favorite — the hosts usually get a built-in three-point advantage — against the Atlanta Falcons, who earned a wild card berth at 10-6. But Arizona overcame a halftime deficit to beat the Falcons 30-24 and create a rematch with the Carolina Panthers, who earned a 27-23 win in week eight.

The Cardinals, 10-point underdogs on the road, rolled to a 33-13 win in the rematch and then hosted the fifth-seeded Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game, when the Eagles scored 19 unanswered second half points before Kurt Warner tossed an eight-yard touchdown pass with 2:52 left to give Arizona a 32-25 win.

Fifteen years later, the Diamondbacks — whose Game 1 wild card series starter was Brandon Pfaadt, a rookie with a 5.72 regular season ERA — have parlayed a pair of comeback wins over the Milwaukee Brewers into back-to-back dominance of the Dodgers, whom they’ve tagged for nine first-inning runs while winning the games by a combined margin of 15-4.

And to really double down on the 2008 similarities: Who may await the Diamondbacks in the NLCS if they can earn one more win over the Dodgers? 

A team from Philadelphia.

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