Struggling starters create worry of overuse in D-backs bullpen
PHOENIX — The Diamondbacks had done everything to ensure their starting pitching staff was healthy entering the 2015 season. After a 5-2 loss Wednesday to the San Francisco Giants, any long-term health worries involve the bullpen, and only because the starters have yet to prove they can take a game beyond the fifth inning.
This time around, Jeremy Hellickson took a loss in his first start of the year by allowing nine hits and three earned runs. He needed 91 pitches to get through 4-1/3 innings, and the damage could’ve been worse had the Giants not stranded 12. Location was an issue from the get-go.
"I only threw a handful of pitches where I wanted," Hellickson said. "When I did get ahead of guys, then I made a lot of bad two-strike pitches."
Hellickson first found trouble in the second. Nori Aoki doubled to left-center to score Brandon Crawford, and Matt Duffy followed with another double to score Aoki.
After the Giants kept Hellickson busy in the third and fourth innings, neither of which yielded runs, third baseman Casey McGehee doubled to begin the fifth. Crawford knocked in an RBI single to make it 3-1 and Hellickson was pulled for Daniel Hudson.
And so continued the trend for the D-backs starters, who haven’t gotten more out of a starting pitcher than Rubby De La Rosa’s 5-1/3 innings on Tuesday. That’s meant the bullpen has, as the team feared, been forced to go longer than manager Chip Hale would like.
Hale said he thought the starters have been too amped up, too anxious to prove themselves. Hale hopes they can learn to relax and play within themselves.
"If we just give the bullpen a little rest … start going a little deeper in the game and get those guys some days off, they’re going to be really good," Hellickson said. "I think we’ll start that in the next couple days."
The D-backs’ bullpen, however, has played well while leaned on. Its first 11-2/3 innings this season were scoreless until, with Arizona trailing just 3-2 in the ninth inning Wednesday, McGehee belted a two-run home run off Evan Marshall.
The loss could be viewed as a missed opportunity for Arizona. Rather than facing San Francisco’s expected third starter, Matt Cain, who is on the disabled list with a flexor tendon strain, pitcher Chris Heston took home his first career victory. He went six innings, allowing two unearned runs and struck out five.
"He did a hell of a job," Hale said. "We have good hitters, I don’t question them one bit. Obviously his ball was moving and his breaking ball had the illusion of a strike.
"He would flip it over early in the count and make us cognizant and then … threw it in the dirt, threw it out of the zone and we were chasing," Hale added.
Arizona managed five hits on the night to 14 for San Francisco.
The D-backs’ two scores did come by way of Heston mistakes — but ones more likely due to Heston losing focus in his first significant major league start. In the first inning, leadoff man A.J. Pollock reached after being hit by a pitch. After rounding the bases when Heston threw a pickoff at first that went astray, the outfielder scored from third on a Chris Owings ground-out.
And when Arizona found itself trailing 3-1 in the sixth, first baseman Paul Goldschmidt doubled to lead off the inning, advanced to third on Heston’s wild pitch, and soon after, slid home on a passed ball. Otherwise, the D-backs couldn’t figure out the young pitcher.
"He did a good job of spotting in and out (of the zone)," said the D-backs Mark Trumbo, who didn’t record a hit after recording two triples in as many games heading into the series finale. "I think what made it even better was his breaking ball. Tough to pick up, tough to lay off. We just didn’t make an adjustment quick enough. Credit to him."
Outfielder Cody Ross, who the D-backs released on Saturday, made his debut for the Oakland A’s on Wednesday, going 1-for-5 with two RBI.
5 — Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford sliced up Arizona for five hits and four RBI in three games.
* Hale started everyone except catcher/infielder Jordan Pacheco in the three-game series. The D-backs will continue to roll with a new look every night to keep all the players in a groove, Hale said. It’s similar to the frequent lineup changes with Hale’s former team in Oakland. "I think with the As, the majority of those guys were older guys who had been around," Hale said. "There, it was that fit — right versus left, left versus right — a guy like A.J. Pollock can hit right or left, it’s not that (here). It’s just about getting another guy at-bats that day, so it’s kind of harder to swallow this point in their careers. But they’ve been good about it so far."
* David Peralta broke up Heston’s no-hit bid in the fourth inning with a single. According to Hale, opposing pitchers have been "testing" Peralta, who against right-handers has fit well fourth in the lineup, between Paul Goldschmidt and Mark Trumbo. Hale wants to make teams think twice about pitching around Goldschmidt, and it paid off Tuesday when Peralta launched a three-run homer. To that point in the MLB season, it was the longest (442.4 feet) and second-fastest off the bat (115.3 mph), per BaseballSavant.com.
* Hellickson became the third D-backs starter that failed to reach six innings, but like Josh Collmenter and Rubby De La Rosa before him, it could’ve been much worse. In the first, he stranded Nori Aoki on third with a strikeout and a forced ground out. Three innings later, Hellickson got out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam — courtesy a strong stop on a hard hit toward Jake Lamb at third — went the Giants could only muster a grounder that led to a force-out and then a lineout by Buster Posey.
* San Francisco wins in Arizona. Wednesday completed their ninth series win against the D-backs at Chase Field.
Hale on Yasmany Tomas: "I think fitness-wise he needs to get in better shape. He knows that. He worked really hard over spring. It’s not just the working hard, it’s how you eat and learning a new country and all these things. It hasn’t been easy for him. The fitness part of it, we expect, it’s not going to happen this season because it’s too hard. But in the offseason I think you’ll see a big change."