SAN DIEGO — The Diamondbacks lost center fielder A.J. Pollock exactly four weeks ago, just as he had begun to establish himself as the leadoff hitter they had been seeking all season. In his absence, the D-backs recently turned to Ender Inciarte to fill both roles.
Inciarte could not be more ready.
"To be honest, I love being leadoff," Inciarte said.
"In my career, I always work on being the leadoff. Getting this opportunity is huge for me. I just want to get on base for my teammates. My adrenaline goes up when I am the leadoff hitter."
His batting average has done the same. Inciarte is 9-for-23 since being moved to the leadoff spot in the final game of the San Francisco series on Sunday, including a four-hit game in the 9-8, 14-inning victory over Cleveland on Tuesday and a two-hit game the following night. He drove in the tying run in the last of the 11th inning on a sharp single to center field Tuesday, and he had two of the D-backs’ five hits and scored their only run against Cleveland on Wednesday.
Inciarte was at it again in a 3-1 victory over San Diego on Saturday, when he singled, stole second and scored on Martin Prado’s sacrifice fly in the fourth inning to tie the game at 1 before Miguel Montero’s two-run home run in the sixth helped Josh Collmenter to his third victory in nine days. He also made a running catch in left-center field to take a hit away from Padres’ starter Eric Stults in the third inning.
"He forced the issue there for us," manager Kirk Gibson said of Inciarte.
The victory moved the D-backs (35-48) into fourth place in the NL West, percentage points ahead of San Diego (34-47) and one game behind Colorado (35-46).
"It’s better than being last," Montero said.
Inciarte has shown a major league-ready arm, glove and range since being promoted as a backup outfielder April 30. With more regular playing time, he is settling in at the plate after a slow start that he blames on being a little too aggressive. His confidence is growing as his offense has come around, and his batting average has jumped 51 points to .239 in the last two weeks.
"You don’t feel really comfortable with yourself when you are hitting .200," Inciarte, 23, said. "I know myself. I know what I can do. So I’ve been working to get to that point where I can be consistent. I feel like I am finally getting confident again."
Inciarte has hit leadoff most of his way up the D-backs’ organization after signing as a free agent from Venezuela at age 17, and his numbers indicate he might be a good fit there. He had 97 stolen bases and 122 walks in 2011-13 while making stops at South Bend, Visalia and Mobile. Philadelphia selected Inciarte in the Rule 5 draft following the 2012 season, but the Phillies ran out of roster space after signing Delmon Young and returned Inciarte to the D-backs.
Incairt also has showed a disciplined plate approach in his short stint at the top of the D-backs’ order, seeing 117 pitches in 25 plate appearances.
"I’m trying to be more relaxed in the box," Inciarte said. "At the beginning, I was just swinging at whatever I saw close. I’ve been trying to make sure I get more control of my strike zone."
Part of the Diamondbacks’ mission as this season plays out is to evaluate the keepers moving forward, and Inciarte could see extended playing time as part of that process. Pollock, who suffered a broken fourth right metacarpal when he was hit by a pitch May 31, could miss three months. Pollock remains the heir apparent at leadoff, but he also can hit in other spots in the order
"He understands the (leadoff) position, and we’ll leave him up there for awhile probably.," D-backs manager Kirk Gibosn said. "We don’t have a lot of choices we are so deep into our depth right now. He’s one of the guys that are healthy. Even when he wasn’t swinging the bat so well, you could see that there was more in there. He’s settled in now and we’re starting to see him pick up the pace a little bit with his bat to go with his defense. He’s very good on the bases. He understands the game pretty good."
Part of that understanding includes the job description of the leadoff hitter.
"Leadoff is important, because he is the one who has a chance to see the pitchers first and then you are going to tell your teammates how he looks. You work the count more," Inciarte said.
"I just like it," he said.
Another example of Cody Ross’ gamer gene. Runner on second base and two outs in the last of the first inning. The teams are a combined 26 games under .500. Foul fly hit down the left field line that appears certain to land in the seats. Ross sprints over from his position in left field and slides feet first on the warning track in an attempt to make the catch. Ball lands in the seats.
88 — consecutive innings the San Diego pitching staff had gone without allowing a home run until Miguel Montero hit his 11th in the sixth inning.
* Chris Owings’ sore left shoulder does not seem to be getting any better, and Owings is likely to stop in Phoenix on Monday to have a doctor check it out, Gibson said before joining the D-backs in Pittsburgh for the start of a three-game series Tuesday. The injury bothers Owings most when he swings the bat. "We feel like he is changing his swing," Gibson said, "and sometimes when you do that, you compensate and hurt something else. We’ve tried to get it calmed down, but that hasn’t happened." Owings was held out of the starting lineup for the fifth time in six games.
* San Diego switch-hitter Chase Headley batted right-handed three times against Collmenter all three times they met. Headley, who entered the game hitting .205, walked , struck out and singled against Collmenter. He batted left against Brad Ziegler and reached on an infielder error. Headley has batted right-handed against only two righties in his career, Collmenter and knockleballer R.A. Dickey.
* Montero threw out Tommy Medica from his knees when Medica attempted to steal second base in the fourth inning.
Archie Bradley returned to a minor league rotation Thursday, when he gave up one run in four innings for Double-A Mobile. Bradley gave up three hits and walked four but was at his best when Jacksonville threatened. After giving up one run in the third inning, Bradley worked his way out of a second-and-third, no-out situation when third baseman Jake Lamb threw a runner out at the plate and right fielder Dustin Martin threw another runner out at the plate after catching a fly ball for the second out. Bradley threw 72 pitches, 41 strikes, and struck out one.