PHOENIX – Through the opening weeks of the season, those factors which many believe will keep the Arizona Diamondbacks competitive in a very competitive National League West division are curiously absent.
First, the pitching.
With the departure of Madison Bumgarner, injury to Zack Davies, and inconsistency from Merrill Kelly, the starting rotation is suddenly in flux. Outside of Zac Gallen, the rotation appears to precarious at best.
Perhaps more telling is the inability of the offense to manufacture runs. For a team built on speed and opportunity, Arizona hitters are not drawing walks, and are thus deprived of pressuring defenses and taking advantage of situations.
After dropping three of four to the San Diego Padres over the weekend, the Diamondbacks, once on the precipice of first place in their division, are sliding. In dropping four of their previous five before opening a series with Kansas City on April 24, Lovullo exhibited little concern.
“We’re showing the rest of the league that we are a pretty good baseball team,” Lovullo said after closing the San Diego series with a 12-11 season record. “We need to earn that. I could be more pleased if we were 23-0 but at 12-11, we’re just fine. We have to keep learning and growing, day by day.”
If there is a genuine concern, that could lie in the starting rotation.
With Davies out with a stained left oblique, Drey Jameson struggling to find the plate, Ryne Nelson and Tommy Henry battling for rotation spots throughout spring training, the uneven effort from Kelly and the Bumgardner exit, that has right-hander Zac Gallen standing as a singular force.
While the term “stopper” tends to be exaggerated, Gallen, at this early point of the season, appeared to have that role by default. His brilliant seven innings of shutout baseball on April 21 clearly demonstrated his value and enters this next start with 22.1 consecutive scoreless innings.
“It’s something I really did not think about until last year when I talked with (Lovullo) about this,” Gallen in reference to the “stopper” term. “This is what the elite guys in baseball do. (Lovullo) challenged me to go out and embrace that role. Really, I only try to get us back on the winning track.”
While Lovullo charges his team to stay sharp, it’s no secret the opening weeks of the season were a challenge.
With two series (home and away) with each the Dodgers and Padres and a home series with the NL Central-leading Brewers, the Diamondbacks survived as an above .500 team. Within the next week, they engage Kansas City (5-17 in games through April 23) and Colorado (6-17 in games through April 23). After their next road trip of five games, Arizona opens the next home stand with Washington, which has a 7-14 record through April 23 and is in last place in the NL East.
On the diamond Sunday… Starter Jameson imploded in the first inning, and the Diamondbacks suffered a 7-5 defeat to San Diego before 23,655 in Chase Field. Allowing three walks, three hits and three runs in the opening frame, Jameson admitted he simply could not find the plate.
“I just couldn’t find the zone,” he said afterward. “I have to find the zone and throw strikes. If you’re not throwing strikes, nothing will go your way. I have to start making competitive pitches in the zone.”
Pulled after one inning, Jameson threw 43 pitches in that first inning and Lovullo told reporters after the game that was enough. Immediately, Lovullo went to lefty Anthony Misiewicz and four pitchers then followed.
With those three in the first and a pair in the seventh, the Padres also capitalized on five walks to even their season mark 12-12. The win moved San Diego within ½ game of Arizona and the Dodgers, both tied for the NL West lead (record of 12-11 on April 23).
Veteran Matt Carpenter led the San Diego attack with a 3-for-3 afternoon and five RBIs. The Diamondbacks pushed the needle with back-to-back homers from Alek Thomas and Nick Ahmed in the seventh and an eighth-inning solo shot from Jake McCarthy.
The three bombs brought Arizona to within two, but closer Josh Hader recorded his eighth save of the season with a 1-2-3 ninth inning.
In the trainer’s room .. first baseman Christian Walker sat out Sunday’s finale with San Diego. He was hit by a pitch on the left forearm in the eighth inning of a 5-3 loss Saturday. Walker sported an ice pack on his arm and, after Sunday’s game, Lovullo told reporters, “he was unavailable (Sunday) but should be available (Monday). Overall, he’ll be ready to go (Monday).”
The Arizona home stand continues … the Kansas City Royals move into Chase Field for the three. In the series opener Monday night, lefty Tommy Henry (first start of the season who replaced Bumgarner in the rotation) opposes righty Brad Keller (2-2, 3.00). On Tuesday night, watch for Ryne Nelson (1-0, 4.91) taking on Brady Singer (1-2, 8.14). In the Wednesday afternoon finale, Zac Gallen (3-1, 2.59) goes for Arizona and Royals’ manager Matt Quatraro is undecided. Then, a five-game road trip that features three against the Rockies and two with the Rangers. The Diamondbacks return to Chase Field and face the Washington Nationals Friday May 5.