Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo was damned if he did and damned if he didn't when managing the bullpen for most of 2023.
A late relief group of Miguel Castro, Scott McGough, Andrew Chafin and Kyle Nelson not only put many a close game out of reach, but often snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
But the bullpen looked different in the second half. Much different.
A back-end group of newly acquired sidewinder RHP Ryan Thompson, budding setup man Kevin Ginkel and veteran closer Paul Sewald came together to become not simply the lack of a weakness, but the team's biggest postseason strength.
The "three-headed monster" dominated the D-backs 7-8-9 innings, delivering clutch performances and truly being the difference in Arizona's path to the World Series. No doubt about it, this team doesn't hold those thin leads without these arms.
Ryan Thompson has a case to be GM Mike Hazen's greatest 2023 pickup. Thompson was DFA by the Tampa Bay Rays in mid August. His 6.11 ERA was not indicative of the season Thompson had been having, since his excellent 2.45 ERA ballooned following a singular five-run appearance.
Hazen had his eye on him for a while, and had noted his desire to pick up Thompson should he become available. On August 22nd, the D-backs signed the righty to a minor league deal, and he made his Diamondbacks debut five days later.
In his first appearance in the Sedona red, Thompson was given a save opportunity due to closer Paul Sewald's immense recent workload and subsequent unavailability. He tossed a clean inning and picked up the save on just 11 pitches against the Cincinnati Reds.
Thompson would go on to have an incredible two month stretch with the D-backs, through the regular season and playoffs. Thompson allowed just one earned run in his entire regular season work with Arizona over 13 full innings. Thompson lowered his ERA by nearly three full runs, and brought his WHIP down to 0.91.
But the dominance didn't end there. Some might say it was Thompson's destiny to pitch in an Arizona World Series run, as the right-hander noted that he modeled his unique sidearm delivery from watching former D-backs closer Byung-hyun Kim, an instrumental piece in the 2001 championship season.
In the postseason, Thompson pitched to a 2.31 ERA. Although having one 2-run showing against the Dodgers, he allowed runs to score in just two of his nine appearances. He pitched more than a full inning in five of those appearances, and the D-backs were an astounding 8-1 in games that Thompson pitched.
The quirky sidewinder was a massive addition to the struggling bullpen, and brought stability with him wherever he went.
Setup man Kevin Ginkel quickly rose through the ranks of the best relievers in baseball, having a near perfect postseason as well.
Not enough can be said about Ginkel's rise, from spending time down in Reno for a short stint, to coming back up with Arizona's bullpen in desperate need of help. The former Arizona Wildcat pitched to a 2.48 ERA and 0.98 WHIP, with 70 strikeouts over 65.1 innings. Ginkel's fiery demeanor on the mound and situational poise brought a spark to the lackluster pen at the perfect time.
In the playoffs, Ginkel allowed zero total runs and 15 strikeouts over the course of 11.2 innings. But even this doesn't speak to how crucial he was. He was able to work the D-backs out of gems on numerous occasions, most recently a two-on, no-out seventh inning, coming just after starter Zac Gallen's no-hit bid was ended.
Despite a heavy season workload, Ginkel pitched more than a full inning three times, and delivered fiery shutdown innings against all four of Arizona's postseason opponents. Ginkel's breakout 2023 was special, and his development into an absolutely elite setup arm is monumental for the future of the D-backs pen.
The final head of the monster is closer Paul Sewald. Sewald, following an unfortunately bad couple of appearances in the World Series, could easily become a scapegoat for grieving fans. But make no mistake, Sewald's dominant October was invaluable in bringing a pennant to the Valley, and before running into World Series MVP Corey Seager, he was damn near perfect.
Sewald was acquired from the Mariners at the trade deadline, in the heat of the D-backs offensive slump. After sitting for nine straight days, Sewald blew his first save opportunity as a Diamondback. It was a brutal introduction, but the veteran closer went on to convert 13 of his next 14 regular season save opportunities. Without even one of those 13 wins, the D-backs don't sniff the playoffs.
Sewald was excellent in the first three rounds of the postseason as well. The right-hander pitched in eight of Arizona's 12 games in the first three rounds, going a perfect six-for-six in save opportunities and setting up two and allowing zero runs against the Brewers, Dodgers and Phillies. Opponents hit just .111 against him through the NLCS, and his WHIP sat at 0.50 prior to the World Series. He struck out 16 batters in 10 innings.
Unfortunately, an asterisk comes with Paul's dominance. Blowing a two-run save opportunity in game one of the World Series and allowing a four-spot in an elimination game that was all but over leaves a bad taste in the mouths of D-backs fans.
But the truth is, Paul Sewald was a critical part of this playoff run, and his poise to mow down even the scariest 1-4 hitters in the NL was undoubtedly a difference-maker. Sewald send the D-backs through to the next series each and every round, and the strikeout scream will live on forever, regardless.
This three-pronged weapon came out of seemingly nowhere, but their dominance throughout the regular season and playoffs was able to transcribe Arizona's weakest link, into their greatest strength, being one of the most paramount factors in their second franchise pennant.