CHICAGO — The Arizona Diamondbacks were supposed to lead the league in grit. Purportedly, that was the rationale behind the Justin Upton trade two offseasons ago. The swashbuckling leadership team of Kevin Towers and Kirk Gibson wanted their guys to play hard, drill opposing hitters when necessary and teach Yasiel Puig a few lessons in major league decorum.
Now they have the worst record in baseball, 5-18. With a 9-2 loss to the nearly-as-woeful Cubs on Tuesday, Arizona dropped to 1-4 on a road trip that could determine the fates of Towers and/or Gibson. And if the Diamondbacks are resolved to save their bosses’ jobs, they aren’t playing — or even talking — like it.
Particularly coming off a winless homestand during which they were swept by the mediocre Mets, the Diamondbacks might need to salvage a split of the four-game series in Chicago or witness a significant firing (or two) before hosting the Phillies on Friday night.
Late Tuesday, a combination of bewilderment and resignation hung in the cramped visitors’ clubhouse at Wrigley Field. A dozen or so lockers apart, losing pitcher Brandon McCarthy and third baseman Eric Chavez offered blunt assessments of what has befallen a team that led the mighty Dodgers in the National League West as late as last July 21.
McCarthy, a nine-year veteran, said he had played on bad teams before. Each seemed to have some positivity and "rays of hope," he said.
Chavez’s statements were perhaps even more damning.
"I’ve never seen anything like it, to be honest with you," Chavez said. "I’ve been on teams that weren’t very good, but at least I felt like we were competitive. So, it’s a bitter pill to swallow.
"It definitely wasn’t what we anticipated. We had a couple pitchers [ace Patrick Corbin and reliever David Hernandez] go down early, which was disheartening. But everybody’s had injuries. This is about as bad of a start as anybody could imagine."
We would expect a "gritty" team to come from behind and win. The Diamondbacks haven’t. They’ve won only two games this season in which they trailed — and one was way back on April 1. In fact, the Diamondbacks are 1-15 when the opposition scores first. What happened to the steadfastness they displayed last year, when, according to STATS LLC, they ranked fifth in all of baseball with 42 comeback wins?
On Tuesday, the Diamondbacks trailed only 1-0 until McCarthy allowed four unearned runs in the fifth — a rally made possible by Martin Prado’s error at second base. And yet it never seemed Arizona was on the verge of tying the score. Against right-handers Jason Hammel, Justin Grimm and Blake Parker, the Diamondbacks didn’t bat with a man in scoring position until they had one out in the ninth inning … and an eight-run deficit.
I asked Chavez if he believes the Diamondbacks now feel "almost defeated" at the moment they fall behind in a game.
"It should never be like that," he said. "But I think lately, it’s been a little bit tougher to overlook that. We’re fighting. It’s definitely harder to do it. That’s for sure. But we’ve got to keep digging deep, keep trying to come back the next day and start some type of winning streak."
"But it is getting harder."
Chavez said the team didn’t hold a meeting after the loss Tuesday.
"Can’t," he said. "We’ve had so many meetings. Talk is really cheap at this point. We need performances on the field. We’ve had more meetings, and people saying stuff, than (any team) I’ve ever been a part of. We need some guys to step up and have some big days. … We’ve used up all the words in our vocabulary, with the meetings. … We need guys to go 4 for 4, go seven, eight, nine innings."
Asked to elaborate on the frustration he’s experiencing, Chavez said: "I can feel it in here tonight. It’s something I haven’t felt before. It’s getting tougher. It really is."
Chavez, a six-time Gold Glove winner, has the longest major league tenure of any player on the Diamondbacks’ roster. His remarks — delivered in a thoughtful, measured tone — are likely to command the attention of Ken Kendrick, the team’s managing general partner, and Derrick Hall, the club president, as they weigh the futures of Towers and Gibson in the coming days.
The Diamondbacks’ rotation — which has a 7.23 ERA, by far the worst in the majors — has absorbed much of the criticism for the team’s poor play. But the story goes beyond that, for a team that is performing far worse than it should. The offense has become inconsistent during the current stretch of 10 losses in 11 games. First baseman Paul Goldschmidt is arguably the lone offensive mainstay playing up to expectations.
And the Diamondbacks can’t afford to fall much further behind in an NL West that features the Dodgers, Giants and surprising Rockies.
"We haven’t synced up," Gibson said Tuesday afternoon. "Guys are pressing. … We’re a much better hitting club than we’ve shown this year. … We all need to play better. I need to manage better. We need to coach better. That’s the way it’s got to happen."
And it must happen quickly, or the Diamondbacks’ dilemma might be someone else’s to solve.