D-backs' struggles in close games no mystery

May 10, 2012

One thing about the Diamondbacks’ scruffy start: At least they have an early handle on the areas they need to correct.

For a team that lived on timely hitting and a shutdown bullpen while winning the NL West in 2011, the D-backs have had a limited amount of each in the first month of the season.

The D-backs are hitting .228 with runners in scoring position, among the lower third in the major leagues. That number was made to look even worse when the Cardinals drove the ball all over Chase Field while outscoring the D-backs 22-9 earlier in the week, the first opponent sweep in Phoenix since August 2010.

At the same time, the bullpen has failed to convert five save opportunities, again in the lower third of major league success rates. Some blown saves are more clerical than impactful, such as when a middle reliever gives up a run in the sixth inning to tie the score. The D-backs have had only one of those. They have failed twice to hold one-run leads in the eighth inning and failed twice in the ninth, and all four of those blown saves came on home runs, two against setup man David Hernandez and two against closer J.J. Putz. D-backs relievers have given up 35 homers, tied for fourth in the majors.

"We’ve had a couple of tough losses," manager Kirk Gibson said. "We've gotten beaten. Good teams come out of these things and pick themselves up."

At the same time, the 14-18 record has been wearing. Players have reacted emotionally after bad at-bats, a sign that frustration is taking hold.

"I think everybody gets frustrated. We haven’t played well. I don’t think anybody is happy with that. The only way to get out of it is to power through it," said Gibson, who refused to use injuries to key contributors such as Chris Young and Daniel Hudson as an excuse.

"You have to move on. We have 25 guys on our roster right now, and we have to go to battle with those 25 guys."

The D-backs lead the major leagues with 260 strikeouts, which obviously hurts their production with runners in scoring position, when a groundout can score a run or set one up. Chris Young was 5 for 11 with runners in scoring position before being sidelined by his shoulder injury April 17. Miguel Montero is 10 for 29. Willie Bloomquist is 6 for 17. Jason Kubel is 5 for 28.

"I think the biggest key is not to analyze it too much," Bloomquist said. "The biggest thing for a hitter to understand is that the pitcher is the one in trouble, not you. Try to get a pitch up. Get your pitch and don’t chase his.

"You don’t try to do too much. If you have multiple guys on base, just worry about getting that first one in. Just keep it simple. You just got to relax and take it easy. We'll turn it around, for sure. There is nobody here who is worried about that. It will start happening, and when it does, everybody will start doing it,” said Kubel, a .273 career hitter with runners in scoring position.

Gibson sees the issue as a symptom of the D-backs' lax overall hitting approach.

"We haven’t been very aggressive. It seems like we've taken some good pitches and put ourselves in down counts," Gibson said.

"It has a lot to do with approach and belief. It’s discipline, getting a good pitch. It’s something overall we haven’t done, and it’s showing up in that category. These guys, they press, they work more, they try to analyze more. It gets pretty overwhelming, but it’s part of the deal. You don’t want to go through it. If you do, you have to be tough enough to go through it."

The lack of timely hitting has translated directly to the team's lack of success in one-run games. They D-backs were 28-16 in one-run games last year, the best winning percentage in the majors, and had 48 comeback victories. They are 4-10 in one-run games this season, with five comeback victories.

The bullpen’s struggles have been unexpected after a strong turnaround in 2011, when the relievers cut more than two full points off their ERA and had 58 saves in 71 attempts. Their 13 blown saves were tied for fourth fewest in the majors, which was a main reason the D-backs were 84-0 in games in which they led after eight innings. They are 13-2 in those games this year.

Putz has not been himself after a 45-save 2011. A change in bullpen roles seems unlikely and has not been discussed, but Putz has given up 10 runs in 10 innings this season. After giving up four homers in 58 innings last year, he has given up four in his last seven appearances, including walk-off shots to Colorado’s Todd Helton and Washington’s Ian Desmond.

Putz, who added a cut fastball in the offseason, has been up in the strike zone and has paid for it. He gave up four runs and a home run in a non-save situation in the Cardinals' 7-2 victory Wednesday.

"He's not locating," Gibson said. "Totally. He's not throwing the ball where he needs to throw it."

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