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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Revamped, redirected D-Backs battle into the race

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Kirk Gibson (above), Matt Williams, Don Baylor and Alan Trammell have 'changed the culture.' (Getty Images)  
Kirk Gibson (above), Matt Williams, Don Baylor and Alan Trammell have 'changed the culture.' (Getty Images)  

We direct your attention away from this summer's Kiss Cam close-ups of the Pirates and the Indians for a short message from the desert.

Ya know, while Pittsburgh and Cleveland are hogging the underdog spotlight, the Diamondbacks have tied the world champion San Francisco Giants for first place in the NL West.

Were the Diamondbacks supposed to be here right now? Heck, no.

Should the Giants be wary of getting bit by the Snakes? Wellll ...

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"When I took this job, I remember telling Derrick Hall [club president] that with the core players we had, there was no reason that we wouldn't be playing at least at the .500 level," Kevin Towers, Arizona's first-year general manager, was saying the other day.

Pause.

"You look at San Diego last year," he continued, "and I thought, 'If they won 90 games, why can't we?'"

At their current pace, the Diamondbacks will win ... 89 games.

Not bad for a dreamer, huh?

In new manager Kirk Gibson and his high-powered fleet of coaches -- including Matt Williams, Don Baylor and Alan Trammell -- the Arizona culture has changed almost overnight.

In transforming what in 2010 was the game's worst bullpen in the past 50 years into something less than X-rated, Towers, chief Snake Charmer, essentially has produced a baseball version of changing water into wine.

Not that the Diamondbacks' bullpen was hideous last summer but, in comparison, BP appeared competent while fixing that ruptured oil pipeline off the Gulf Coast.

No question Towers, long the game's resident genius in constructing bullpens, was the right man for this particular job. He was fired as San Diego's general manager in an ownership change following the 2009 season after 15 years running the Padres. He spent last year as a special assistant to Yankees GM Brian Cashman.

Behind two key new additions acquired by Towers last winter, closer J.J. Putz (free agent signing) and set-up man Daniel Hernandez (acquired from Baltimore in the Mark Reynolds deal), the Arizona bullpen ranks 12th in the NL with a 4.02 ERA -- a vast improvement over last year's "relief" corps that was dead last in the NL with a 5.74 ERA.

That's a staggering improvement of 1.72 runs a game. Statistically, Arizona's bullpen this summer is better than that of the Mets, Dodgers, Rockies and Astros. Putz's 25 saves rank ninth in the NL.

Last summer, the only Top 10 in which the Diamondbacks' bullpen ranked was under "Things Most Likely to Make You Violently Ill If You Don't Shield Your Eyes Quickly, Pal."

Fan Poll

Who will win the NL West?

Giants
62%
Diamondbacks
30%
Rockies
3%
Dodgers
3%
Padres
3%

Total Votes: 7,608

Towers brought in two more pitchers over the weekend at the trade deadline, including Brad Ziegler from Oakland, a funky delivery guy who adds depth. Towers loves layering his pens with relievers who offer different looks -- hard throwers, soft throwers, righties, lefties, guys who throw with deception, funky deliveries, what have you. Ziegler should fit nicely.

The GM also acquired starter Jason Marquis from Washington, a veteran who should help Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson and Joe Saunders. Kennedy is tied with Philadelphia's Roy Halladay for the NL lead with 13 wins after beating the Giants in Monday night's series opener.

"The club we're behind right now, pitching is what's kept them where they're at," Towers said of the Giants.

This was a couple of days before the acquisitions of Ziegler and Marquis, and Towers made the point that Arizona's starting pitching has been "great of late" -- 10-5 with a 3.51 ERA since the All-Star break -- but noted that depth could be a problem in both the rotation and the bullpen.

That the Diamondbacks have bounced back so quickly is a testament to Towers, Gibson and so many others, but it's also a little disorienting as well in that they're not yet deep enough overall to trade top prospects in bold moves. As the Pirates and Indians pondered at the deadline, it's a fine line between acquiring help to make a push this year while retaining key parts of the farm system.

Still, Arizona is 45-28 (.616) since May 13, those 45 wins tied with the Phillies, Brewers and Yankees for second-most in the majors during that span behind Boston's 49.

If Justin Upton continues to wreak havoc, who knows? Upton now has hit safely in 13 consecutive games since July 19, during which time he's gone .451 with seven doubles, one triple, six homers and 19 RBI.

As for the culture ... the Diamondbacks were 15-22 on May 13. And that's when their season turned around: Beginning that night, they won 15 of their next 17 games, and the race was on.

"We were losing close games, and you could see the players' doubt," Towers said. "That's when Gibby and the coaching staff said, 'We're not going to let this happen.'

"One thing I can say about this club is, we play hard. We never quit, no matter what the score is. I think the fans notice that."

Among other things, with Upton, Chris Young and Kelly Johnson, the Diamondbacks lead the NL in homers.

Yes, talk about a complete change from Towers' old life of directing the Padres in cavernous, pitcher-friendly Petco Park.

"I'm used to being on the other side of that home-run stat," he said wryly. "And this is much nicer."

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