May 28, 2024

PHOENIX — A funny thing happened along the way to a Philadelphia Phillies repeat as pennant winners: The Arizona Diamondbacks decided to make a series of their best-of-seven matchup with the defending NL champs. On Friday, the self-anointed “Answerbacks” tied the NLCS at 2-2 with a thrilling 6-5 win, one night after they beat Philadelphia 2-1 in a walk-off.

A team dismissed as a year ahead of schedule, with a home crowd that was never supposed to be able to match the chaos at Citizens Bank Park, has turned the narrative upside down by winning Games 3 and 4 at Chase Field, stunning the veteran-laden Phillies in the process. Arizona is no longer here for pundits’ fodder.

“I’m tired of that narrative that we’re lucky to be here,” manager Torey Lovullo said after their latest win. “I want everybody to know that we don’t feel like it, and hopefully they’re starting to change their mind as well.”

How many come-from-behind wins does it take to believe? Arizona has done it four times this postseason, including the past two nights.

On Thursday, Ketel Marte gave the D-backs the first walk-off of the entire season when he knocked a bases-loaded single — his third hit of the game — off Craig Kimbrel in the ninth inning.

Friday’s star, outfielder Alek Thomas, perfectly symbolizes a team grinding its way through the postseason. In May he was sent to the minors for a month when he was batting just .195/.252/.327 in his first 39 games. He returned in June with a new focus, and four months later helped win Game 4 with a pinch-hit home run off … Kimbrel in the eighth. And that not-so-raucous crowd has been anything but the past two days. After all, the Diamondbacks are giving them plenty to cheer about.

“In the [indoor] cage as I was getting ready to hit, it wasn’t looking too good,” Thomas said during the pandemonium after the game Friday. “I was missing everything.”

But like his team itself this October, he came through at the right moment. It’s what veteran third baseman Evan Longoria has been preaching to his young teammates.

“These playoff series are about getting the big hit when you need it,” he said. “Everyone on this roster has been ready for their opportunity when they’ve gotten it.”

They’ve needed just about everyone on the roster. With a thin starting staff heading into Game 4, Lovullo pushed nearly every button perfectly, using up most of his bullpen to pull out the win. And even with the designated hitter in play, he has used pinch hitters liberally: five times in the four games. That keeps everyone ready and inherently makes the wins a little sweeter.

“We have a group of guys that believe in each other and believe in ourselves,” outfielder Corbin Carroll said. “We have full confidence in that next-man-up mentality.”

On some teams, that would sound like a cliché, but for the Diamondbacks it’s been proved several times this postseason. A win in Game 5 on Saturday would ease the burden of returning to Philadelphia to capture two victories in a hostile environment in which they’ve lost twice. But taking one of two seems like a simpler task. And now a possible one.

But first things first. Both teams will have their No.1 going in Game 5 as Zac Gallen and Zack Wheeler will repeat the Game 1 matchup. It’ll be a far cry from the bullpen madness of the night before. Lovullo made a plea to his fan base, which has woken up just like his team.

“We got one more here [Saturday], and we feel it,” Lovullo said. “We don’t necessarily have that during the year, but we want it, and we know that we’ve got to go out there and earn their trust back. And hopefully when we do things like this, the baseball world sees that the Arizona Diamondbacks are a damn good baseball team.

“We’re in the middle of a journey. It’s a three-game series. We’re not going to lose focus. We are going to keep that competitive edge and that competitive focus. I can guarantee you that.”

Even Lovullo’s counterpart is having to answer for the upstart Diamondbacks. Phillies manager Rob Thomson knows his team has lost the momentum gained in their two wins at home. Those victories seem like eons ago, not just a few days.

“They’re scrappy,” Thomson said. “I said that at the start of the series. They’re a good team. They can do a lot of different things. They can put pressure on you. You have to alleviate that pressure by throwing strikes, not giving them extra outs, and handling the baseball on defense.”

Philadelphia did none of those things in Game 4. It sets up a critical Game 5, with one team looking to refind its mojo — and another seeing how far it can ride the wave.

“We still have a lot of work left to do but I thought coming home and winning these two [games] kind of relit the fire, relit the belief for us,” Longoria said. “It was stomped out of us a little in Philly.

“It’s back.”

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