Collmenter steps in; D-backs take step forward

PHOENIX — General manager Kevin Towers told his radio audience Wednesday that the Diamondbacks will make the playoffs. He prefaced that by saying he was sticking his neck out, and he is supposed to be first among believers.

That does not look like much of a stretch right now.

The D-backs backed emergency starter Josh Collmenter and four relievers with another home run on a 3-0 pitch, this time from Jason Kubel, en route to a 6-1 victory over the Cubs on Friday at Chase Field. It was the D-backs’ third victory in four games in a get-well homestand that included an earlier visit from the Mariners.

It may be too early to make too much out of a game or even a homestand, but the D-backs (35-35) are trending in the NL West. They have gained three games on the division-leading Dodgers this week and are just 6 1/2 games back, as close to the Dodgers as they have been since May 12. They are 3 1/2 games out of a playoff spot.

“Do we wish we were in first place? Of course,” manager Kirk Gibson said. “We’re not. Does that change anything? Do we get overly frustrated and cash it in? No way.

“Our hat is still in the ring.”

The biggest hat Friday was worn by Collmenter, who learned he would start as the team lined up for the national anthem about 15 minutes before the game. Scheduled starter Joe Saunders felt tightness in his left shoulder after a handful of warmup pitches in the bullpen, and pitching coach Charlie Nagy turned to Collmenter, who had pitched just one inning since June 8 and had not started since April 24.

Collmenter did not blink. He went four innings, giving up only a bases-empty home run to Geovany Soto in the fourth inning. Kubel countered that with his two-run homer in the last of the inning, and the D-backs’ other relievers added five scoreless innings.

“You could tell something was not quite right (with Saunders), so I made sure I stretched and got ready. After the anthem, I tried to get loose as quick as possible. I felt comfortable and confident going out there,” said Collmenter, who pitched out of a bases-loaded, one-out situation in the second.

“You get the adrenaline going when you have to get ready so quick, but at the same time, you have to make sure you calm down and make the pitches you need to. I felt really confident going in that I knew how to get loose and get ready and attack the hitters. Wasn’t as sharp as I wanted to be, but when it was all said and done, it worked out.”

Gibson added: “He toughed it out.”

Saunders said he felt no pain while warming up but did feel tightness, calling it a “weird, fluke thing.” He added, “Maybe I slept on it wrong.” The training staff found no structural damage, Saunders said, but he expects to be evaluated again Saturday.

Neither Gibson nor Saunders wanted to speculate about Saunders’ availability for his next scheduled start Thursday in Atlanta. With an off day Monday, the D-backs could keep their starters on regular rest and push Saunders back two more days to June 23 if the shoulder requires extra rest. Collmenter, Patrick Corbin and Trevor Bauer could be considered replacement rotation candidates if Saunders needs more time than that.

“I have no clue about that right now,” Gibson said.

It was a big night for the bullpen all the way around. Brad Ziegler (4-1) pitched two scoreless innings, was credited with the victory and got his first major league hit. David Hernandez pitched 1 1/3 innings, recorded a save when he pitched out of a bases-loaded, two-out situation in the eighth, and also got his first major league hit. Hernandez had his autographed bat on his shoulder during postgame interviews.

“It just puts another option in Gibby’s mind,” Hernandez said of his hitting.

The bullpen “was awesome,” Saunders said. “It was frustrating to come in here and not be able to contribute, but they played great and pitched their butts off.”

Kubel ignited the D-backs’ second straight comeback victory with his two-run homer on a 3-0 pitch from Chicago starter Jeff Samardzija with one out in the fourth, after Justin Upton singled. Upton homered on a 3-0 pitch to start the D-backs’ comeback in a 14-10 victory over Seattle on Wednesday.

“It’s going to be the best pitch you see all day. You try not to roll it over,” Kubel said.

On the last road trip, when the D-backs were in Los Angeles to play the Angels, Gibson asked Kubel where he would like to hit in the lineup. Kubel said fourth, and Gibson has put him there for all four games since. Kubel is 5 for 14 with two homers and five RBIs there this week.

“I told him, ‘If you keep swinging the bat that way, you can stay there,'” Gibson said.

Miguel Montero had two RBIs and Upton and Aaron Hill had one apiece.

The D-backs have scored 36 runs in their last four games, and with 12 victories in June, they are tied with the Pirates for the most in the NL this month.

A June that Towers believes promises more.

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