Though the Diamondbacks dropped a series-opening game with the Nationals on Tuesday, they took the first step in a process of becoming whole again.
Second baseman Aaron Hill returned to the lineup after missing 10 weeks to a broken hand, becoming the first of a few imminent returns that could bolster the D-backs’ lead position in the NL West.
Hill went 2 for 4 at the plate with two runs scored in his return, looking a lot like the major contributor he was last season out of the No. 2 spot in the batting order. Hill should also get chances to drive in runs of his own, which could mean a great deal for an offense that’s fluctuated between potent and anemic.
“I think you’re always trying to get better,” D-backs manager Kirk Gibson said, putting simply what it means to add a fresh bat to a lineup that collectively hit .181 and .180 in back-to-back series against the Padres and Marlins last week.
Added first baseman Paul Goldschmidt: “Obviously he’s a very good player. We all know what he can do. It’s good to get him back.”
Hill’s return makes the D-backs lineup better, even if it takes him a little while to get comfortable again. Third baseman Eric Chavez’s return should do the same. Chavez, who has been out since May 31 with an oblique strain, is currently on a rehab assignment with Triple-A Reno and could return as early as this weekend, when the D-backs meet the Braves in Atlanta.
After going 2 for 3 in a game with Reno on Tuesday, Chavez told the Reno Gazette Journal he felt more confident in his second rehab appearance and should be able to tell the D-backs on Friday if he is ready to return or if he needs more time.
Chavez’s return would give the D-backs one of their most effective run producers back. Entering Wednesday’s game, Chavez’s 25 RBI trailed only NL RBI leader Paul Goldschmidt (66) and Gerardo Parra (26) among D-backs batters, despite the extended layoff. His surprisingly strong start helped the D-backs to first place in the division despite early season struggles by Martin Prado, Montero, Jason Kubel and Cody Ross.
The pitching staff is also due for reinforcements. Closer J.J. Putz, out with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament since May 8, pitched in back-to-back games with Reno on Monday and Tuesday. His return could also come this weekend.
Putz returned to Phoenix on Wednesday for evaluation. If everything looks good, Putz will join the team on the road and retake his place as closer from Heath Bell, who has allowed a home run in each of his last five appearances.
Bell’s struggles have forced Gibson to answer questions about his closing situation over the past week, and Gibson said he’s sticking with Bell for the time being, although he left open the possibility of other options. Putz’s return, provided he’s healthy, should put an end to the questions.
The other end of the pitching staff will have at least one piece back this weekend when Ian Kennedy returns from his 10-game suspension to start Saturday. Though Kennedy has pitched inconsistently this season and owns a 5.21 ERA, his return at least gives the D-backs a complete starting rotation as they go through a stretch of 20 games in 20 days.
Further help could arrive with Brandon McCarthy’s return from the disabled list (shoulder), but his status remains unclear. McCarthy threw a bullpen session on Monday and will reach the four-week mark of his rehab process on Friday. McCarthy has experienced shoulder issues the past four seasons and predicted when he went on the disabled list June 1 his recovery would take four or five weeks.
Once his shoulder is deemed ready, McCarthy will likely need at least a week to pitch on a rehab assignment.
“Initially it was kind of a fight to get guys to go down and do it,” Gibson said. “I think they understand why right now. First of all you want to make sure they’re healthy. We run them around the bases and they work out and do all these things, (but) when you start playing games, it’s totally different.”
It’s also important to note the D-backs have learned not to put the cart before the horse — a lesson that was reinforced by Daniel Hudson’s reinjury to his pitching arm. Gibson and the front office know not to count on a player until he is in the lineup. Accordingly, Gibson has been careful about assessing the potential impacts of players nearing apparent returns.
There’s no better example to support that line of thinking than outfielder Adam Eaton. Expected to start in center field and lead off, Eaton went down with a UCL sprain in spring training. He worked his way back and appeared a week or so away from returning, only to suffer a setback in his third rehab game.
Eaton was shut down for three weeks and Wednesday began his latest rehab assignment with the D-backs’ rookie league team. On his last assignment, Eaton served exclusively as a DH for two weeks, and he will likely do so again this time around. Thus, his return is probably a month or so away.
Hill’s return has meant a cut in playing time for Willie Bloomquist and Cliff Pennington. Chavez’s return could force the D-backs to trim an infielder from the roster, and it might mean trying to more playing time in the outfield for Prado. Gibson is already juggling four players in the three outfield positions: Parra, Ross, Kubel and A.J. Pollock.
In the end, though, the returns bring the D-backs much closer to looking like the team they fielded on Opening Day, and that bodes well for them in what has become the most wide open division race in baseball.