Phoenix – The Arizona Diamondbacks are a stretch and a yawn into April, still breaking in stiff gloves and out-of-the-box spikes, and already it is clear they won't go another season being outscored.
Seeing as they just put 23 runs in 2½ days on the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team that's going to hang its season on its pitching staff, the Diamondbacks are through with explaining how a 90-game winner and a division champion could possibly finish 20 runs in the Sedona red.
Nine games in, Bob Melvin's guys are showing the pitch-to-pitch grit of a veteran lineup, on Wednesday afternoon getting just enough of strike machine Hiroki Kuroda to find four runs where there should have been only one or two. They won by a run, sweeping the Dodgers without Brandon Webb ever throwing a pitch. They swept the Colorado Rockies last weekend in Denver, and that's 43 runs and a lot of very professional plate appearances that became a six-game winning streak.
Yes, off an NL West title and an NLCS flameout, the Diamondbacks are still growing up, around an early Mark Reynolds home run Tuesday, around a seventh-inning Eric Byrnes single Wednesday, around the next sign of opportunity from here on in.
Many of them are just kids, figuring this out an inning at a time. A season ago, the same guys pushed through nasty slumps, floated across hot streaks and in the end discovered the broader satisfaction of winning together. Now, after a spring emphasis on inching their games ahead through education and self analysis, they have the look of a more mature unit. It helps when Reynolds rolls out of camp with five home runs in a week and Justin Upton hasn't yet found a pitch he can't hit, but the depth is in Chris Young's eight walks and Conor Jackson's .480 on-base percentage and a come-off-the-bench three hits Wednesday from Augie Ojeda.
As a result, the Diamondbacks aren't simply a team of arms and gloves, or the NL West prototype, but in the early going leading the league in runs and home runs. They almost certainly won't be exactly that for very long, but it's a nice place to be in the meantime.
Indeed, for the alternative, they needed only to gaze into the opposing dugout, where Joe Torre had to bench his $18-million center fielder – Andruw Jones – in the name of locating offense. It's a sad day in L.A. when the Dodgers need to start Juan Pierre over Jones to get some pop in the lineup, but, as it went, Pierre ripped a long double in his first at-bat and Jones, having entered the game in a double-switch, struck out flailing at a wild slider to end the game.
Jones is batting .129 and the Dodgers have scored three or fewer runs in six of their nine games, and they're not going to pitch or defend well enough to sustain that sort of offense.
Which, of course, is good news for the Diamondbacks, who weren't a particularly popular pick to repeat in the West. They've come out with other ideas, however, and again wear the colors of a contender. They've lost starter Doug Davis for a month or more to thyroid cancer, but have Randy Johnson coming off the disabled list to start Monday. Reynolds' bat took an afternoon off Wednesday, but Micah Owings hung in there for seven innings and Byrnes joined the season with three hits and the Dodgers made a critical error to help along an inning.
"We've got a good thing going," Byrnes said.
They boat-raced the Dodgers for two days, then stole one on the third day, when the Dodgers were a little desperate for a win. They've lost three in a row and four of five.
"The fact we kept grinding the at-bats [is critical]," Melvin said. "The other team feels it. It was something this spring we really worked on. … We've been doing most of our damage with solo home runs, and every now and then a two- or three-run home run from Mark Reynolds. Sometimes all it takes is a single."
The Diamondbacks scored their four runs Wednesday on a groundout and two singles. Good at-bats. Taking what Kuroda threw at them, doing a little something with it. Just like everyone talked about in March.
"It was a spring like that," Young said, "but it's also a season like that. It starts in spring training, but it runs all summer. It's just how the game is – learn as you go."
A season ago, Young drew his eighth walk on May 26, about 10 days after Reynolds took his first big-league at-bat, more than two months before Upton would arrive in the majors.
"Our young guys are learning," Orlando Hudson said. "They've got some at-bats up under their belts."
And good ones too.