PHOENIX — It was a lazy mid-March afternoon on the west side of town, mild and sunny. Birds caught the wind, made leisurely loops on a day that seemed expressly assembled to lighten the drudgery of spring training. Until the sky fell.
After his 91st pitch in his final tune-up, Patrick Corbin summoned Diamondbacks coaches and medical personnel to the mound at Goodyear Ballpark. His elbow hurt, and it had for a little while. Corbin had just struck out Luke Carlin in the seventh inning, and with the D-backs ahead he would be the winning pitcher.
But that was the last pitch Corbin will throw in 2014, and his injury and subsequent Tommy John surgery turned into the first domino in a cascading chain of events that was the biggest contributor to the D-backs’ struggles before the All-Star break.
The D-backs placed 12 players on the disabled list and compiled a 40-56 record before the break, tied with Houston for the second-worst record in the majors behind Texas, the only team that has lost more player-games to injury that Arizona.
The extended losses of Mark Trumbo, A.J. Pollock, Eric Chavez and Cliff Pennington robbed them of two top threats in the lineup and two valuable, veteran reserves. The offense has suffered — the D-backs ranked No. 21 in runs (376) and No. 23 in home runs (76) despite All-Star seasons from first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and catcher Miguel Montero.
But pitching is where the losses were most felt, and what has been the biggest cause of their slow start. Setup man David Hernandez had Tommy John surgery a week after Corbin, and right-hander Bronson Arroyo, slowed in spring training by a balky back, went under the knife Tuesday.
With No. 1 starter Corbin gone and designated Nos. 2-3 starters Trevor Cahill and Brandon McCarthy uncharacteristically ineffective — for a second straight year — the D-backs opened the season 8-22, beginning with their two-game season-opening series against the Dodgers in Sydney, Australia; they never recovered.
From Down Under to down under.
The D-backs have about a win for every loss since April 29, but the poor start leaves new chief baseball officer Tony La Russa and general manager Kevin Towers facing the post-break portion of the season mulling trades and using the time to evaluate young players rather that looking for a veteran to add for a possible playoff run.
The D-backs had a major league-high 5.11 ERA and a major league-low seven quality starts in March/April, the major culprit. The D-backs made two quality starts in their first 18 games and three in their first 25, putting so much of a burden on the bullpen that manager Kirk Gibson was forced to use his relievers based on rest rather than in set roles.
"Our starting pitching needs to be better, period," Gibson said at the time.
The Corbin loss opened a spot for Randall Delgado in the starting rotation, but by the end of April both Delgado and Cahill had been moved to the bullpen, their jobs gone to Josh Collmenter and Mike Bolsinger. Chase Anderson later replaced Bolsinger, who was brought back when Arroyo hit the DL but was returned to the minors again this week when Cahill was activated for the second half.
The revolving door was not what the D-backs needed, inasmuch as left-handers Tyler Skaggs and David Holmberg had been traded in the offseason and top prospect Archie Bradley missed six weeks in the minor leagues with elbow soreness.
Delgado gave up nine runs in 7-2/3 innings of two starts before Collmenter (6-5, 3.97 as a starter) added some stability. Cahill gave up 18 runs in 17-2/3 innings before losing his job. Cahill also struggled in relief, and he accepted his minor league option on June 11 rather that test free agency with the guarantee that he would return to the majors this season.
McCarthy did not win any of his 10 home starts and was traded to the Yankees for Vidal Nuno on July 6. Like Anderson, Nuno will be evaluated in the second half as the D-backs look toward 2015.
As the pitching staff failed to stabilize, other parts of the D-backs’ game became out of round in an attempt to compensate. The D-backs ran into outs on the bases, attempting to force offense knowing that it might take six runs, not four, to win a game. They tried too hard on defense, such as throwing behind runners, while trying to create outs that were not there. And so it went.
Wade Miley (5-6, 4.18), Collmenter and Anderson (6-4, 3.64) have helped stabilize the rotation, which has a 4.58 ERA at the break. Still, that would be the second-highest in franchise history, one-hundredth of a point higher the 1998 expansion team.
"Baseball is a crazy game," Towers said at the end of April.