After back-to-back seasons with over 90 losses there weren't many people who were picking the Arizona Diamondbacks to win the National League West this season.
But that's exactly what happened, as Arizona returns to the postseason for the first time since 2007 and opens the best-of-five National League Division Series on Saturday against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park.
Arizona lost 97 games last season and was an afterthought heading into this year. However, the team took on the identity of manager Kirk Gibson, got terrific seasons from an emerging ace in Ian Kennedy and a burgeoning superstar in Justin Upton and easily claimed the fifth division title in team history, finishing a comfortable eight games in front of the defending world champion San Francisco Giants.
"We finished a great regular season," Gibson said. "The team came together well, we're healthy, and now we've got some decisions to make to see how we're going to attack the Brewers."
Gibson's crew battled the Brewers for the second seed in the National League up until the season's final day before Milwaukee finally emerged.
While securing home-field for the first round was an important goal for both Milwaukee and Arizona, it was even more important for the Brewers, who set a franchise record by going 57-24 at Miller Park this season.
"It's special, said Ryan Braun. "We recognize that we're a really tough team to beat here. It's a huge advantage for us to know that we have home-field advantage, at least for the first round. It was definitely a goal of ours from the beginning of the year."
The Brewers were a trendy pick in NL Central entering the year thanks to the acquisitions of Shaun Marcum and Zach Greinke, After a rough start to the year Milwaukee began to separate itself from the pack and claimed its first division title since winning the American League East in 1982, the same year of the team's last and only trip to the World Series.
Milwaukee is back in the postseason for the first time since 2007 and only the fourth time in team history.
Arizona won four of its seven meetings with the Diamondbacks this past season.
The Brewers are led by a pair of NL MVP candidates in outfielder Ryan Braun and first baseman and pending free agent Prince Fielder.
Braun has become one of the best right-handed sluggers in the game and finished the year second in batting at .332. He also hit 33 home runs with 111 RBI, 109 runs scored and stole 30 bases.
Fielder caught some heat late in the year for alluding to the fact that this is probably his last year with the Brewers, but he produced yet another great season, playing in every game and hitting at least 35 home runs with 120 RBI for a sixth straight season.
Second baseman Rickie Weeks suffered what could have been a season-ending ankle injury in late July before returning in September. Although he had just one extra-base hit after returning, but is still a dangerous hitter.
Cory Hart didn't quite match his breakout 2010 campaign, but still swatted 26 home runs. Fellow outfielder Nyjer Morgan may be a bit eccentric, but often supplies a much needed spark on the basepaths.
While not as impressive as Braun and Fielder's MVP cases, people in Arizona will tell you that Justin Upton is every bit as good as his counterparts. The right-fielder set a career-high in games played (159) and hit .289, while setting personal-highs with 31 home runs, 88 RBI and 105 runs scored.
First baseman Paul Goldschmidt hit 30 homers in 366 at-bats at Double-A Mobile before jumping to the big leagues, and hit a homer off Tim Lincecum in his first game up at the beginning of August. He ended the year with eight homers and 26 RBI.
Miguel Montero continued to emerge as one of the best catchers in baseball this season. He hits .282 with 18 home runs and 86 RBI, but it was his work behind the plate this season that bought rave reviews.
Center fielder Chris Young also became the first Diamondbacks player with three 20-20 seasons, finishing with 20 homers and 22 steals.
Milwaukee will open the series with right-hander Yovani Gallardo, who led the team in wins (17) and strikeouts (207) while working 207 1/3 innings, and pitched the team's only complete game.
Over his final three regular-season starts Gallardo pitched to a 1.77 ERA and struck out 36 batters over 20 1/3 frames.
"I'm going to just focus on the game," said Gallardo, who did not allow an earned run in seven innings in the 2008 postseason. "That's the goal. Obviously, it's going to be exciting for all of us, but I just need to do what I've been doing all year."
Who starts the second game is still up in the air. Roenicke had wanted to go with righty Zack Greinke on short rest in Game 2 since he was 11-0 with a 3.13 ERA in 15 Miller Park starts this season.
Gallardo and Greinke combined for 31 Miller Park starts with the Brewers winning 28 of those games, 15 of them being Greinke assignments,
However he threw 74 pitches on short rest on Wednesday and will instead go in Game 3 on Tuesday. Instead it will likely be righty Shaun Marcum in Game 2. He was 8-3 with a 2.21 ERA in 16 road starts, compared to a 5-4, 4.81 ERA at home.
Veteran left-hander Randy Wolf, who led the team with 212 1/3 innings pitched, will probably start a Game 4 if needed.
Like the Brewers, the Diamondbacks have no concerns on who starts Game 1, as that will fall on the right arm of NL Cy Young Award candidate Ian Kennedy. The 26-year-old hurler enjoyed a breakout campaign that saw him go 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA. He ended the year strong winning 13 of his final 14 decisions, including his last six.
Righty Daniel Hudson should get the ball in Game 2. Hudson was 16-12 on the year, but lost his last three starts.
Veteran Joe Saunders will likely get the call in Game 3 with rookie Josh Collmenter taking the hill in Game 4 if needed.
After tutoring under Trevor Hoffman until taking over the job last year, Axford set a Brewers franchise saves record with 46 this season and hasn't blown one since April,
K-Rod is not happy in his role, but he gets the job done and hasn't allowed a run in his last 15 appearances. He along with veterans like righty LaTroy Hawkins and lefty Takashi Saito give the Brewers a bullpen full of former closers.
J.J. Putz re-established himself as one of the best closers in baseball this season, as he amassed a career high with 45 saves, while converting his last 23 successfully. His biggest contribution may have been in the clubhouse, though, for a very young Diamondbacks team.
Right-hander David Hernandez, acquired from Baltimore in the Mark Reynolds deal, has been the primary bridge to Putz and even went 9-for-9 in save chances when he was hurt. Side-arming righty Brad Ziegler was a non-waiver trade deadline pickup and has been solid. Gibson will use Joe Paterson and Alberto Castillo to get lefties out.
Jerry Hairston Jr. can play almost everywhere on the field and was an invaluable addition when Weeks went down. Carlos Gomez will see some time in the outfield and could be used as a late inning pinch running option.
There is a good chance that Gibson opts to start Lyle Overbay at first in place of the young Goldschmidt. Either way he has a bat with pretty good pop at his disposal off the bench. Geoff Blum was slated to be the team's starting third baseman but had a knee injury at the outset before breaking his pinkie. Although he's only had 49 at-bats, he could be useful here in October. Collin Cowgill will also likely be on the roster and can play all three outfield positions.
This could be the best of the four Division Series matchups as both teams are so evenly matched. Milwaukee is a little deeper in the starting rotation department and has a little more pop in its lineup and that should be the difference. Gallardo, Marcum and Greinke are a pretty solid 1-2-3. Not to mention in a tight series like this, it's always wise to go with the team with home-field advantage. I don't think it gets to a fifth game, though.
Prediction: BREWERS in FOUR