Diamondbacks open series with easy win over Cubs in Jordan Lawlar's MLB debut

CHICAGO — Tommy Pham carries a certain air about him, from the Diamondbacks’ clubhouse to the dugout and onto the field. It’s as if his ambition in those long, winding hours before a game is to eliminate any notion that he’s there to mess around. He’ll crack the occasional joke or poke fun at a younger teammate. But he is not easily sidetracked. The goal, plainly, is to get better and make wins follow.

Pham’s demeanor stands out amid the backdrop of his teammates, a young, lighthearted bunch that’s never been here before. That unencumbered nature can help a team navigate 162 games. But there are also series, like this week’s crucial four-game set against the Cubs, where an intense focus is required.

“It's like a bunch of Labrador retrievers chasing frisbees around the beach,” manager Torey Lovullo said. “Just retrieving it and bringing it back. And the master is Tommy Pham. He's the dog owner. He's the guy that we lean on for a lot of different reasons.”

In Thursday’s series-opening 6-2 win, the Diamondbacks leaned on Pham for a pair of home runs, each pounded to the opposite field. The first got them on the board, establishing a first-inning lead. The second put the game to rest, giving the Diamondbacks a comfortable cushion in the eighth inning.

With the win, Arizona opened a half-game lead on Cincinnati and Miami for the final Wild Card spot. They trail the Cubs by three games for the second spot.

Pham wasn’t the only veteran who helped the Diamondbacks get there, settling them down on a day that began with the inherent hype that comes when a club promotes its top prospect, in this case shortstop Jordan Lawlar. In the third inning, Ketel Marte added a two-run homer, opening the lead to 3-0. In the ninth, Marte provided the night’s final run with an RBI single. And after Joe Mantiply gave the Cubs brief life down to their final out, Paul Sewald entered to induce a game-ending groundout.

“It always sets a good tone when the veterans do their job,” Lovullo said. “You have the youngsters just running around and going and doing their thing as well. But you have the calming influence of a veteran that's getting the job done.”

The veterans’ job was easier in part because of the performance of one particular rookie, starter Ryne Nelson. After being sent down to Triple-A Reno for four games to sharpen his slider, Nelson returned and allowed just one run in 5 2/3 innings.

While Nelson’s outing looked positive on the surface, there were some concerning signs. He only used that slider 12 times and didn’t get a single Cub to swing and miss on it. His fastball usage was dangerously high at 68%. And his three strikeouts did not suggest he has fixed his most glaring weakness — a jarring 5.9 strikeouts per nine innings, among the worst rates in baseball.

Both Nelson and his manager, though, were encouraged by the look of the slider, even if Lovullo ultimately pulled the plug at 73 pitches.

“There were a couple that he threw that I actually made some statements to the pitching coaches about how that shape and the speed of the pitch was much improved,” Lovullo said.

For Nelson, those details paled in comparison to the feeling of getting back to the majors. Over the past four weeks, Diamondbacks’ games have blared in the Triple-A clubhouse, reminding Nelson of what he was missing. When the game wasn’t on, he would sneak a look at the score, keeping tabs on the Wild Card race from afar. Now, he’s a part of it once again.

“It just feels good to be able to help the team win,” Nelson said. “That was something I was really missing. Wanted to get back up here and help these guys out pretty bad.”

Jordan Lawlar records first major league hit in debut

CHICAGO — Jordan Lawlar collected his first major league hit in the fourth inning Thursday. Lawlar, the Diamondbacks' top prospect, hit a fairly routine grounder to third base but used his speed to beat Jeimer Candelario's throw across the diamond.

Although Lawlar didn't have the most exciting debut, going 1 for 4 at the plate, he made a highlight-reel play in the field to start the fourth inning, robbing Nico Hoerner of a hit with a sliding backhanded play.

“That was exciting,” Lawlar said. “I saw it come at me, low angle and just kinda made space and spun and threw it over to (first baseman Christian Walker). I knew he's gonna catch everything.”

Lawlar said the reality of making his debut hit him a few times, mainly in the few moments when the Wrigley Field crowd had something to cheer about. Two moments he mentioned after the game were Seiya Suzuki’s fifth-inning triple and the home crowd’s rendition of Take Me Out to the Ballgame.

“It was amazing,” Lawlar said. “Standing at shortstop, looking at all the fans in the stands. Aw, it was amazing. I'll never forget it.”

The highlight of the day, though, was Lawlar’s base hit. He said after the game that he plans to give the ball to his mom, Hope, with whom he has a particularly close relationship.

Diamondbacks' bullpen takes different look with Bryce Jarvis demotion

CHICAGO — As part of the spate of moves that they made prior to Thursday’s series opener against the Cubs, the Diamondbacks optioned reliever Bryce Jarvis to Triple-A, clearing a 28-man roster spot for Ryne Nelson, who is starting Thursday.

The move left their bullpen with an unusual look in that the Diamondbacks do not have a prototypical long reliever. Since debuting in August, Jarvis had excelled in that role, pitching to a 2.81 ERA and averaging over two innings per outing.

The Diamondbacks, though, felt comfortable in that decision because the expansion of active rosters in September means they have nine relievers in the bullpen, rather than the eight that they carried for most of the season.

“We can just ask a couple guys to go two innings instead of one-plus,” Lovullo said. “So we'll be fine. So we don't have a designated long man as we did with Bryce, but we'll be fine coverage-wise.”

The Diamondbacks also claimed catcher Seby Zavala from the White Sox. Zavala reported to the major league club, while Jose Herrera was optioned to Triple-A.

Zavala is just a .205 career hitter and is hitting .155/.207/.304 this season, but the Diamondbacks believe he will be a defensive upgrade as their backup catcher.

Coming up

Friday: At Chicago, 11:20 a.m., Diamondbacks RHP Zac Gallen (14-7, 3.48) vs. Cubs RHP Jameson Taillon (7-9, 5.73).

Saturday: At Chicago, 11:20 a.m., Diamondbacks RHP Merrill Kelly (11-6, 3.22) vs. Cubs LHP Justin Steele (16-3, 2.55).

Sunday: At Chicago, 11:20 a.m., Diamondbacks RHP Brandon Pfaadt (1-8, 6.27) vs. Cubs RHP Kyle Hendricks (5-7, 3.73).

What to know about the Chicago Cubs

The Cubs have been one of the hottest teams in baseball since just before the trade deadline, a well-timed streak that likely convinced the front office not to be sellers on Aug. 1. It turned out to be a good position: The Cubs entered Wednesday having won 32 of their past 46 games and are now in prime position to claim a wild-card spot in the National League -- that is, if they don’t catch the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central. The Diamondbacks will face the Cubs seven times in the next 11 days, games that could determine playoff hopes or positioning for both teams. CF Cody Bellinger has been the Cubs’ best hitter this year. He owns a .319/.364/.546 line with 23 homers and 19 steals. RF Seiya Suzuki is hitting .273/.344/.463 with 16 homers; he is hitting .362 with seven homers since Aug. 9. 3B Jeimer Candelario, whom the Cubs acquired from the Nationals at the trade deadline, has posted a .812 OPS with five homers with his new team. LHP Justin Steele, whom the Diamondbacks will face on Saturday, is a Cy Young candidate; he has a 2.55 ERA with 153 strikeouts and only 33 walks in 152 innings. RHP Adbert Alzolay has converted 22 of 25 save chances with a 2.80 ERA.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Diamondbacks open series with win over Cubs in Lawlar's debut