Loss aside, D-backs confident as they hit road

PHOENIX — A win Sunday certainly would have given the Diamondbacks a nice feeling to take with them as they begin a 10-game road trip starting Monday, but even with a 5-1 loss and series split with the Mets, they reiterated that they feel good about where they are and how they’re playing.

Now 4 1/2 games behind the NL West co-division leaders, the Dodgers and Giants, the D-backs know they could be entering their most crucial stretch yet, beginning with a series against the Dodgers in Los Angeles on Monday.

“We had a good stretch here — 7-3, that’s good,” D-backs manager Kirk Gibson said. “It’d be nice to duplicate that. And if we don’t, it’s not the end of the season, but we do make it harder for ourselves.”

The D-backs did fare well on their important homestand but ended it with somewhat of a thud Sunday. They couldn’t figure out Mets ace R.A. Dickey and his knuckleball, scratching out just one unearned run on four hits off the starter and striking out eight times.

“You have to tip your cap to Dickey,” D-backs starter Joe Saunders said. “He baffled us all day.”

The caveat to the 7-3 stretch at home is that all of the wins came against two-last place teams and a Mets team that has now won just three times in its last 16 games. The coming road trip will be significantly more challenging.

“We still haven’t played out best ball on the road,” second baseman Aaron Hill said. “We’re right there.”

The trip starts with three games against the Dodgers, who on Sunday completed a three-game sweep of the Giants to grab a share of first place. Then it’s on to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

“We’re going to play against much better teams,” Gibson said. “It’s extremely challenging. At the same time, I enjoy the challenge and I’m looking forward to measuring up to it.”

In the end, wins are wins, no matter the competition, and the D-backs took advantage of a favorable stretch to bring themselves back within striking distance of the division leaders. After 102 games last season, the D-backs were 55-47 and four games behind the Giants. They used a 39-21 stretch run to win the division.

This year, they are 51-51 but in nearly the same place in the standings, just with two teams to catch instead of one. The series with the Dodgers could give the D-backs a chance to get even closer, but they know it won’t be easy, especially given the momentum that comes with a series sweep.

“We always play very close games in Los Angeles,” Gibson said. “The fact that we need to play solid baseball and play fundamental baseball is very important in that series.”

Added center fielder Chris Young: “If we’re going to do what we plan on doing this season, it’s going to be big road trip for sure, especially the first one, starting off in L.A. We’re going to have to continue playing good baseball like we have been doing, and I think we’ll be just fine.”

Possibly helping the D-backs’ cause was the addition of third baseman Chris Johnson via a trade with the Astros on Sunday. Johson, batting .279 with eight homers, 21 doubles and 41 RBIs this season, will join the D-backs in Los Angeles. The D-backs could also make more moves before Tuesday’s non-waiver trade deadline.  

“We believe he’s going to help us, obviously, make us a stronger team,” Gibson said. “We’re trying to get better, we’re trying to get stronger.”

Despite Sunday’s loss, the confidence level remained high in the D-backs’ clubhouse. Gibson and each player asked confirmed that the team was pleased with the homestand. If that confidence and the more consistent play the D-backs have found lately continues on the road, the D-backs may just be amid the breakout stretch they’ve been waiting on.

Gibson couldn’t say for sure if that is or will be the case, but this much is certain: The D-backs believe they are contenders. Young said it Friday, and general manager Kevin Towers referred to the club as a contender after Sunday’s game.

Young also said the D-backs don’t believe they have played their best baseball yet.

“No question about it,” he said.

If that play still in there, now would be an opportune time for it to emerge.

“We’re still in it right now,” Young said. “All we’re thinking is just go (to Los Angeles) and win the series right now. We’re not going in saying we have to sweep them or having that type of mentality. It’s just going in and playing good baseball to win the series.”