D-backs' Lovullo and Hazen navigated difficult years — on field and off — en route to World Series

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PHOENIX (AP) — Some say the Arizona Diamondbacks are ahead of schedule, advancing to the World Series with a young roster that was supposed to need a few more years of seasoning before hitting the sport's biggest stage.

Manager Torey Lovullo and general manager Mike Hazen have a different perspective.

The two friends and colleagues have navigated a difficult five years — both personally and professionally — that have made the D-backs' improbable run to the Fall Classic even sweeter.

Game 1 against the Texas Rangers in Friday night in Arlington, Texas.

“Trust me when I say there were some real hardships,” Lovullo said on Tuesday night after the D-backs beat the Phillies 4-2 in Game 7 of the NLCS. “There were some very dark days in my career. We lost 110 games two years ago.”

The Diamondbacks had a 52-110 record just two seasons ago, sinking to the cellar of the NL West in ugly fashion. A couple rough seasons during a rebuild is common in baseball in these days, but Arizona's nadir felt even worse in the sense that the franchise wasn't even trying to tank.

They were just terrible.

Arizona occupies a middle space in today's baseball economy — it's not really a small-market team, but it doesn't spend like the Mets, Yankees or Dodgers. There isn't much room for error when doling out sizable contracts.

Prior to the 2020 season, they gave an $85 million, five-year deal to veteran lefty Madison Bumgarner that didn't pan out. Smaller contracts in 2021 for veteran relievers like Joakim Soria and Tyler Clippard were essentially a sunk cost, too. Some of the team's younger players like Ketel Marte and Christian Walker regressed.

And then the players the organization let go often seemed to blossom. They dealt lefty Robbie Ray to the Blue Jays in 2020, and he went on to win a Cy Young Award with Toronto in 2021.

The D-backs were cursed with a reverse Midas touch.

Arizona's president, CEO and general partner Derrick Hall admits that earlier in his career, he might have made a change. But Hall said he “had a hunch” that his patience would be rewarded if he stuck with Hazen and Lovullo.

“We have always had great confidence in both,” Hall said. “Mike has had a plan and we believed he deserved the time to see it play out. And Torey keeps getting better and better. He is a players’ manager and those guys love playing for him.”

There was also personal tragedy mixed into those tough seasons. Nicole Hazen — the GM's wife — was diagnosed with glioblastoma in 2020 and fought the brain cancer for more than two years. She was 45 when she died.

Mike Hazen took a partial leave of absence during the 2021 season, spending more time at home to care for his wife and the couple's four sons. Before Game 3 of this year's NL Division Series, Charlie (17), John (16), Teddy (15) and Sam (13) all threw out the ceremonial first pitch in honor of their mom.

Lovullo — who is close with Hazen's family — exchanged hugs with the boys on the field after the first pitches.

When the D-backs clinched a spot in the playoffs on Sept. 30, Mike Hazen admitted the emotions were still raw.

“It has been long. A lot of stuff has happened,” Hazen said. "There is somebody for me that is not here that was here six years ago that was a huge Diamondbacks fan. Was a huge Merrill Kelly fan. He was her favorite player."

Kelly pitched a gem in Game 6 during the recently-finished NLCS, providing a gutsy road win that set the stage for the team's Game 7 triumph. Kelly's emergence is one of many shrewd moves Hazen made over the years that slowly started to pan out. The veteran right-hander was pitching in South Korea before the D-backs brought him back to MLB in 2019.

Hazen's made several moves since that ugly 2021 season — particulary in the past 12 months — that have been vital. He traded rising star Daulton Varsho to the Blue Jays in exchange for catcher Gabriel Moreno and outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who both immediately became important pieces.

He inked veteran three-time All-Star Evan Longoria to a $4 million, one-year deal to help bring leadership to a young clubhouse. He also traded for closer Paul Sewald and outfielder Tommy Pham at the trade deadline, with both providing big moments. Sewald, in particular, has been brilliant in these playoffs, throwing eight scoreless innings and converting all six save opportunties.

And maybe most importantly, Hazen had the foresight to sign rookie Corbin Carroll to an $111 million, eight-year deal during spring training, cementing the 23-year-old as the team's main building block. Carroll rewarded the franchise's confidence with a brilliant year and is favorite to win the NL Rookie of the Year award after finishing with 30 doubles, 25 homers, 10 triples and 54 stolen bases.

Two years after nothing went right, everything has gone right.

Now the D-backs are four wins from winning a World Series for just the second time in franchise history.

“I won’t speak for other people, but I thought it would take a little more time,” Carroll said. “So to be able to do it in this first year just makes it all the more special.”

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AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/mlb