D-backs open play early with WBC looming

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Spring training is six days longer this year in order to fit the World Baseball Classic into an already-full schedule, which is the reason the Diamondbacks will begin exhibition play Saturday.

For D-backs catcher Miguel Montero, it is business as usual. While Montero is pleased and proud to make his first appearance for his native Venezuela in the WBC, he said he will not treat the disjointed spring any differently than in previous years. The D-backs come first.

“That is the No. 1 priority. I have a responsibility to my team, and I need to take care of that. I have never represented my country before. To be the first time, it is going to be a blast. I’m excited about it. But I am just going to try to keep my routine. I can’t really change anything,” Montero said.

Montero will catch starting rotation candidate Tyler Skaggs when the D-backs open their 37-game spring schedule against the Rockies at Salt River Fields. Skaggs, one of three candidates for the No. 5 spot in the rotation along with Patrick Corbin and Randall Delagado, is glad to be going first.

“It’s exciting to kind of set the bar, hopefully set the bar high. We’ll see how it goes,” said Skaggs, who is scheduled to pitch two innings.

Montero is one of seven D-backs who are to participate in the WBC. Willie Bloomquist and Heath Bell will play for the U.S. team, while Gerardo Parra and Martin Pradio will join Montero with Venezuela. David Hernandez will pitch for Mexico, and nonroster invitee Nelson Figueroa is on the Puerto Rico roster.

Gibson sat down with all the WBC players to map out a schedule. Hernandez and Bell are expected to pitch against Colorado on Saturday and then have the next two days off before returning to the mound on Tuesday. The two also are scheduled to pitch on March 1, the day before all WBC players leave to join their teams. Team USA is to train at Salt River Fields, while the Venezuelan contingent will work out in San Juan, P.R., the site of their first-round games.

“I’m just trying to get everybody in a game, keep them healthy,” D-backs manager Kirk Gibson said. “I want to get the WBC guys ready to play.

“When you go up for your first at-bat, you are pretty pumped up. You haven’t been up there in a while. I want to get them comfortable in their positions, on the bases, in the clubhouse, in our system, and then start to figure things out. It is a long way to go.

“I’m glad we are starting to play games. I think we are ready for it.”

Gibson is not the only one ready.

“You can hit all the B.P. (batting practice) you want and do all the base running you want and all the outfield drills you want,” outfielder Adam Eaton said, “but once you start getting into the game is when you really start having some fun. I think we are all excited to see another jersey.”

Because of the length of spring training, Gibson added several lighter days into the early schedule to let the players recover, and because of that, he said, “hopefully we will have good energy.”

Skaggs, a left-hander, will be followed immediately by the other two No. 5 candidates, Corbin and Delgado, as the D-backs look to get an early read on one of their only two spring training position fights. Backup catcher is the other, with veterans Wil Nieves and Rod Barajas in the mix.

Corbin is to start against the Rockies on Sunday and Delgado is to face the Royals in Surprise on Monday. With health always a wild card, the winner of the competition may be the one who can locate his pitches the best. That will be foremost in the early evaluation process.

“The first thing we preach is command your fastball, so right now that’s what I’d like to see,” Gibson said. “Spot it where they want it. Keep the ball down. And if they want to go up, go up where they want it.

“Try to get them built up first. I don’t really want guys going out there and throw 15 curveballs and try to miss everybody’s bat. I’m not interested in that. That time will come when you use your whole arsenal.”