Improving Diamondbacks, Braves clash to start second half
ATLANTA — The Arizona Diamondbacks and Atlanta Braves return from the All-Star break having had two of the National League’s biggest first-half turnarounds from a year ago.
The Arizona improvement drew the most attention, because the Diamondbacks’ 53-36 record has them in the lead for the first of two National League wild-card spots.
Atlanta, though, also had a substantial uptick despite still being under .500 with a 42-45 record at the break.
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Arizona improved by 15 victories from a year ago, while the Braves were 11 wins better.
The teams play a three-game series in Atlanta beginning Friday night and the Diamondbacks will be trying to get back on track in their first visit to SunTrust Park.
Arizona slumped at the plate while losing five of six before the break to fall 7 1/2 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West.
“We will continue to be an offensive team, and I believe in us as an offensive team,” Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said. “We want to make sure we come out of the break and take advantage of those trap moments.”
The Braves, who went into the All-Star Game off a 13-8 stretch, split a four-game series at Washington before the break and trail the Nationals by 9 1/2 games in the NL East.
“It was a good first half,” said Atlanta manager Brian Snitker, whose team survived the loss of slugger Freddie Freeman for seven weeks. “The record could have been better. We shot ourselves in the foot a few games. I think, realistically, we could have been over .500.”
Veteran knuckleballer R.A. Dickey (6-5, 4.23 ERA) will start the series opener for the Braves against hard-throwing Taijuan Walker (6-4, 3.65 ERA) of the Diamondbacks.
Dickey found a better feel for the trademark pitch that helped him win the 2012 National League Cy Young Award with the New York Mets as he produced a 1.00 ERA in his final four starts before the break.
The 42-year-old struggled at SunTrust Park during the early part of the season, but he has allowed just two earned runs over his past 21 innings at home.
Walker, acquired from Seattle over the winter, had a solid first half for the Diamondbacks, but was roughed up by Cincinnati last Saturday, surrendering three first-inning runs and five overall in a 7-0 loss to the Reds.
The 24-year-old Walker has never faced the Braves, while Dickey is 2-1 with a 1.66 ERA in three career outings against the Diamondbacks.
Despite a recent slip, Arizona recorded its most victories ever at the All-Star break. The 2003 team had 52 wins.
With Zach Greinke and Robbie Ray having gone to the All-Star Game, Lovullo will hold them back until the Diamondbacks’ series at Cincinnati beginning Tuesday. Patrick Corbin and Zack Godley will start after Walker against the Braves.
“We are exactly where we’re at because of the pitching,” Lovullo said. “We all know starting pitching sets the tone for the day, and I feel like we have a lot of really key pieces in place.”
Snitker will follow Dickey with hard-throwing Mike Foltynewicz and then left-hander Jamie Garcia, holding Julio Teheran back to start the next series against the Chicago Cubs on Monday.
The Diamondbacks swept a three-game series in Atlanta at Turner Field last May and won the season series 5-2. The teams will play three games in Arizona on July 24-26.
In addition to Greinke and Ray, the Diamonds were represented in the All-Star Game by first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and third baseman Jake Lamb. The Braves’ only All-Star was center fielder Ender Inciarte, a former Diamondback.