D-backs exit break with momentum, questions
The Diamondbacks recovered so nicely in the final weekend of the pre-All Star Game schedule that it's easy to see them carrying that momentum into another September stretch drive.
Winning three straight from the NL West-leading Dodgers represented a big step forward, and it came at just the right time. By shaving three games off the division lead in less than 72 hours to conclude an at-times-ragged first half, the D-backs find themselves in almost exactly the same position they were in at this time last season.
We all know what happened then.
Cue the Pamplona footage. The D-backs are the ones in hooves.
The D-backs (42-43) resume play Friday -- with a three-game series against the Cubs -- trailing Los Angeles by four games and Atlanta by the same for the second wild-card berth. They are only three behind the Dodgers in the loss column, however, the margin that means the most.
It is eerily similar to 2011, when the D-backs were 3 1/2 behind the Giants after hosting the All-Star Game. Granted, the D-backs were playing better, entering the break six games above .500. But they have been more banged up this season, losing torrid Chris Young for a month and right-hander Daniel Hudson for the season.
Yet the D-backs showed last weekend that they still have the ability to power through the tough times, ending a six-game losing streak in what could have been considered a must-win series against the Dodgers.
General manager Kevin Towers has been busy the past several weeks discussing potential trades as the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline approaches, a process perhaps more publicized but certainly no different than in his previous 15 years. Two-way deals, three-way deals -- the conversations have taken many turns.
And while Justin Upton, Stephen Drew and others have entered the rumorsphere, the D-backs were not close to making a trade earlier in the week, a source said. They will not trade top regulars for prospects, as credentialed as those young players might be. If they do anything, it would be to address third base and shortstop for this season and beyond.
"We’re in win mode," Towers has repeated recently.
To stay there, it would help if ...
• Ian Kennedy returns to a reasonable facsimile of his 2011 form. Kennedy had a career year in 2011, finishing fourth in the NL Cy Young voting at 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA. Kennedy, 6-7 with a 4.26 ERA this year, has been hurt when the ball has been up in the strike zone and has won only three of his 13 starts since April 22. He has at times been victimized by a lack of support -- he got just one run in a 2-1 loss to the Nationals and no runs in a 3-1 loss to the Dodgers and a 2-0 loss to the Angels. The D-backs need him as the strong head of the rotation.
• Justin Upton does the same. Upton was fourth in the NL MVP voting with 31 homers and 88 RBI last year but is nowhere close to that pace this season, although there are signs that he might be breaking out. Upton hit .333 in June after being benched for three games in the first week of the month while scuffling, and he had seven hits in the series with the Dodgers. Upton carried the D-backs from June through August last season, hitting .317 with 24 doubles, 15 homers and 52 RBI, and the D-backs could use a similar hot streak to put even more juice in a lineup that includes hot bats Willie Bloomquist, Aaron Hill, Jason Kubel and Paul Goldschmidt.
• Some combination of Joe Saunders, Trevor Bauer and Josh Collmenter emerges at the back of the rotation behind Kennedy, Trevor Cahill (7-7, 3.64 ERA) and Wade Miley (9-5, 3.04). Collmenter gave up two runs in 12 innings in a pair of solid starts last week, when he returned to the rotation after an injury to Saunders, who is scheduled to pitch the second game against the Cubs on Saturday after missing time with shoulder soreness. Bauer (1-1, 5.40) was even better in the final game before the break, giving up two hits in six shutout innings against the Dodgers. He retired the final 12 batters he faced, saying later that a nagging groin injury that had bothered him in his first two major league starts was no longer an issue. The guess is that Bauer stays in the rotation and Collmenter returns to his role as long man to start the second half. Teams continue to ask about Saunders, but the D-backs are not interested in dealing him, at least not until they get a further read on their younger arms such as Bauer.
• Closer J.J. Putz and the bullpen continue to progress. Since contributing to walkoff losses in three of the first 25 games, the D-backs' relievers have regained the effectiveness that was a hallmark of the NL West-winning team in 2011. It starts with Putz, who struggled early but appears to be back in form. Wit his pet split-finger pitch working well, Putz (1-4, 4.50) has been scored on in only two of his past 18 appearances while converting 10 of 11 save opportunities. He has given up 12 hits while striking out 17 in his past 18 innings, a span in which opponents have hit just .190. His presence at the back end of the bullpen solidifies a group that includes strong setup men David Hernandez, Bryan Shaw, Brad Ziegler and Craig Breslow. Shaw is the only one of that quartet with an ERA over 3.00.
• The center-field situation is resolved. Chris Young was the hottest hitter in the National League the first 11 days of the season before missing a month because of a slight tear in his shoulder ligament. He has not been the same since, hitting .143 in 38 games after returning in mid-May. Young has shown some signs of breaking out recently, however, with three home runs in his past 10 games, none more meaningful than his pinch-hit homer in the ninth against Braves 100 mph closer Craig Kimbrel on June 27. Young is the D-backs' best outfield defender and a heady base runner, but Gerardo Parra is a viable option in center with an elite arm and could get more playing time if Young’s offense continues to struggle.