LOS ANGELES – The game can be brutal, and the people who band together to play it fragile.
Not to say that Kirk Gibson is fragile. The man's two-day beard could plane a door. His glare once downed a 10-point buck from 30 yards. Through a thicket. And sunglasses.
Yet, approaching the quarter mark of 2012, Gibson and his Arizona Diamondbacks are strapped for anything resembling the level of play that last season made them surprise champions of the National League West.
What they do have is the promise that Chris Young, Daniel Hudson and, eventually, Stephen Drew will be among them again, along with the memory that they weren't much to look at this time last year, when most onlookers had them pegged to finish a dreadful and deserving last place in the division.
It's a pretty little story, of course, how these Diamondbacks are 15-21, same as those Diamondbacks, who actually fell to 15-22 before they shillelaghed the rest of the division the next four months. So, how come Kirk Gibson isn't getting all misty over 15-21? Other than the fact that Kirk Gibson saves his mistiness for the important stuff, like football and pine tar?
Because all this losing stinks, because it looks bad and smells bad, that's why. Because it's not just the losing, but the rancid play on the way to losing, which generally has not spared anyone in Sedona red. That, and, at some point, it stops being early and it starts being today, which dictates you are what your record is and what the standings say you are.
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Gibson, for the moment, will fight that notion, that the Diamondbacks – due in part to those injuries – aren't the taut, hungry and game squad of a year ago, though he did speak this week of coming personnel "adjustments" should they continue on this wayward path. The Diamondbacks have lost 10 of their last 12 games, the latest by 3-1 Monday night to the Los Angeles Dodgers. They are 9½ games behind the Dodgers.
"It's very frustrating," Gibson said. "It's frustrating for everybody. But, that's why we signed up for what we do."
Not for the frustration part, presumably, but for the fixing part. Maybe the patience part, too, except that time could be passing. The Diamondbacks do require some work, beyond standing around and watching Dodgers slugger Matt Kemp go to the disabled list, and watching the San Francisco Giants torture themselves and their fan base, and watching the Colorado Rockies pitch themselves out of contending, and really not watching the San Diego Padres at all.
Approaching 40 games, the offense is dreary, the pitching is borderline atrocious and the defense rates in the bottom half of the league. This, in spite of the fact the Cy Young Award candidate of last season – Ian Kennedy – is healthy, as is the MVP candidate of last season – Justin Upton. They're just not as good. Many of the promising career arcs of 2011 have flattened or worse. The clubhouse is – according to one player – running on the anxious side because of it, the first clue that it's getting less early every day.
"We just need to start playing better baseball," said closer J.J. Putz, who has allowed 10 runs in 10 innings. "I don't think our team has played well as a whole, any of us."
Health issues for the center fielder, shortstop and No. 2 starter – Young, Drew and Hudson have played in a combined 14 games – explain only so much. The rest falls to a lineup that has been just average, and a pitching staff that ranks 13th in ERA in a 16-team league. All that magic in one-run games in '11, when the Diamondbacks were 28-16? They're 4-10 in '12.
Young was batting .410 with five homers and 13 RBIs when he hit the fence in Phoenix a month ago, damaging his shoulder. He hasn't had a big-league at-bat since, though Monday night he began a short minor-league rehabilitation regimen.
Twenty-five games have passed, and Young remains tied for the team lead in home runs and tied for fifth in RBIs.
So Upton, for one, said a reenactment of 2011 – from overlooked to overachievers – was not what the Diamondbacks had in mind, and the memory of it has brought no comfort to a team that expected better of itself.
"It's definitely a trap," he said. "I mean, it's a touchy subject. We're confident we can do it, but you get caught up in that it can get too late real fast."
Upton, still just 24 years old, last season finished behind only Ryan Braun, Kemp and Prince Fielder in MVP balloting. Over the first six weeks of '12, his batting average (.226), OPS (.655) and production with runners in scoring position (2 for 26) are taking a beating. Speculation that Upton misses Young – his best friend in the game and another critical element in the lineup – brings a short sigh from Upton. They all miss Young, of course, but Young wasn't going to win all those games they lost for them, just as Hudson wouldn't have.
Personally, Upton said, "I've been around long enough to stand on my own two feet. But Chris brings a different energy here."
Young could be back in the lineup by this weekend, and perhaps they'll all be better for it. Upton certainly looked like a man ready to start hitting again, and ready for some help.
"Someone says, 'Take a step back and relax,' " he said. "That's easier said than done. It eats you up a little bit."
None of which does a thing at the moment for the Diamondbacks, who, as Gibson pointed out, find themselves in the same position at the same time as other teams presumed to be capable: The Los Angeles Angels, the Philadelphia Phillies, the Boston Red Sox came to mind.
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"I don't look at it as comforting," Gibson said. "I look at it as we come out every day to win a ballgame. We're not even a quarter of the way through the season. A lot can happen. We know we're going to play better at some point. We just hope we have enough to catch up."
Gibson happened to be staring out at Dodger Stadium, the site of his most remarkable professional journey. Stuff happens. Some of it is great. Some is brutal.
"You can't really predict," he said, "how you get somewhere."
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