Brent Strom’s making a difference; Arizona starters are among the best in baseball

PHOENIX – Over the first five weeks of the season, standings in the National League West could have been misread. The Arizona Diamondbacks, who tied the Baltimore Orioles for the worst record in the game a season ago, now flirt with a winning record and a potential challenge to the post-season play.

Wait, let’s not get too far ahead and reasons for demise, at this point, far outweigh reasons for success. Yet, the starting pitching has carried his team and while bats continue to slumber, it’s been the starters who have been a catalyst for this early success.

A principal reason for this makeover is Brent Strom, the 73-year-old pitching coach who eschewed a beach retirement in Mexico to get back in the game. After retiring as the Houston pitching coach and leaving the Astros in good standing at the end of last season, Strom answered a call from Arizona field manager Torey Lovullo to put on the uniform once again. The request was simple and the answer swift.

By late November, Strom agreed to be the Diamondbacks’ pitching coach and the transformation began. Strom emphasized the greater use of off-speed pitches to set a deceptive fastball and slightly altered mechanics to the delivery of Zac Gallen.

The results have been as impressive as comprehensive.

Coming into his weekend series with the Chicago Cubs in Chase Field, the Arizona starters have a 2.94 ERA. That is second-best in the National League and only to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Gallen enters his next start with 0.95 ERA and Madison Bumgarner posted a 1.78 over his initial seven starts of the season. Merrill Kelly, winners in three of his first four decisions, enters his next start with a 1.71 ERA. That’s good enough for sixth-best in the majors and third in the National League.

The temptation is to link the starters as a group and conveniently announce there is contagious electricity running through the clubhouse. In effect, this success tends to feed off one another, but participants offer a different explanation.

“You see guys go out there and pitching well, so you want to do your part,” said Gallen after his last start this past Sunday, a victory over Colorado. “You don’t want to be the weak link. As a pitching staff, we’re trying to bring that edge and bring that little bit of tenacity. Just let it overflow to the rest of the clubhouse.”

Given Strom’s track record of success at Houston, there is every reason to believe he will continue to make adjustments and keep the starters performing at a high level. While there is a tendency to advance the argument that winning is contagious, Lovullo points out that achievement and success are interchangeable.

“That’s what happens with good rotations,” Lovullo said. “We have five guys challenging one another and holding each accountable. Each guy is going out there and having a quality start. We’re watching this group of guys who are carrying this ball club right now, I think that’s what good teams do. Good teams rely on their starting pitching and they go out, execute and keep teams in games. They are professional and want to excel each time they take the mound.”

Looking ahead … in the Friday night opener to close out the current homestand, look for righty Zack Davies (1-1, 3.34 ERA) taking on lefty Drew Smily (1-3, 3.04). On Saturday, it’s righty Zac Gallen (2-0, 0.95) facing lefty Justin Steele (1-4, 5.32) and for the Sunday afternoon finale, it’s righty Humberto Castellanos (2-1, 4.32) facing veteran righty Kyle Hendricks (2-3, 4.33). Then, it’s off to Los Angeles for four with the Dodgers, and Wrigley Field for four with the Cubs, The Diamondbacks return to Chase Field on Monday May 23 to face the Kansas City Royals.

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