Diamondbacks' rough start has them coiled up in cellar of NL West

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

LOS ANGELES – If there were an organization that, by appearances, took personally the fresh abundances and ensuing strut of the Los Angeles Dodgers, it was the Arizona Diamondbacks.

They challenged the air space around Dodgers’ hitters’ ears, they drew and re-drew lines in the dirt, they retroactively announced adult swim, and they happily advanced the conversation that they, the Diamondbacks, were the willing and eager party to the commissioner’s global baseball initiative, which the Dodgers undertook with the spirit of a hemorrhaging seal dumped into Bondi Bay.

In the NL West, which the Dodgers appear equipped to win for the next decade, the Diamondbacks would fight back with grit and intellect and enthusiasm, if not bankroll, which sounded great. In reality, the Diamondbacks’ season began on March 22, which is coming up on a month ago, and they’d won four games. (Though, to be fair, they have been close a few other times.)

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The issue has been their pitching, primarily their starting pitching, made slightly vulnerable when staff ace Patrick Corbin fell to baseball’s Tommy John pandemic near the end of spring training. That doesn’t entirely explain the 4-14 start, or the 7.63 ERA from the starters Corbin left behind, or the .191 batting average with runners in scoring position, or the 15 errors committed, or the 1-11 home record.

These things happen, sometimes even to decent teams. Though, at the moment, it’s hard to imagine the Diamondbacks as a very good team. April is a perilous time for snap judgments, but this is the team that had given away 27 ½ games in the NL West to the Dodgers since late last June, and the team whose owner on Friday sounded more than a little impatient with his baseball people. Well, person. His general manager. OK, Kevin Towers.

As the baseball world tilts toward hard numbers and analytics, Towers tends toward the stuff that built competitive teams in San Diego and, yes, Arizona. In fact, Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick hired Towers in part because Towers wasn’t as reputedly stuck on cold data as, say, Josh Byrnes, who was Kendrick’s previous general manager. And now, somewhere in the midst of the 4-14 start, Kendrick has declared himself more of a centrist.

In an Arizona Republic article, Kendrick seemed to identify Towers as the potential problem. Here it should be noted that Kendrick extended the contracts of Towers and field manager Kirk Gibson less than three months ago. So, as everyone beneath Kendrick remains mindful that an awful start is simply an awful start and is not yet fatal, Kendrick himself took those 18 games, considered the philosophy of his general manager, and told the Republic, “I think we know we don’t have the balance I still think is the right way to go, and I think we need to recognize [that].”

As an example, Kendrick cited the extreme defensive shifts becoming so common.

“We aren’t doing that because I don’t think we have studied the data at a level they’ve studied it,” he told the paper. “Now how valuable is it? I guess we’ll see. You’d like to have the information, make a judgment on how valuable it is, and either use it or not use it. … I think we need to do a better job in that area.”

Well, OK, there are two possibilities here. One, Kendrick has had this conversation with Towers, hasn’t seen the results, and is unhappy about that. Two, Kendrick used the newspaper as inner-office memo and from now on would like to see a right-field rover employed against left-handed hitters. Somehow, I think Kendrick’s list goes longer than where to position his shortstop against Adrian Gonzalez, but maybe not.

He’s almost certainly disappointed, maybe confused, and well within his rights to challenge and even criticize a ballclub that has underperformed. Even in the third week of April. He also should know his observations started the clock on Towers, whether he meant it that way or not, so beyond the unattractive record and the ground that needs to be made up and the effort that will take, there’s also this thing about where the general manager comes in on … defensive shifts.

Anyway, the Diamondbacks got to L.A. and seemed to have an idea they need to improve in a few areas, and seemed to understand that while they could use a 10-game winning streak, the way to that is, as Mark Trumbo said, “Inch by inch.” And, without asking, they probably knew the owner wasn’t pleased with their being in last place. By a lot.

They’d come off a weeklong homestand in which they didn’t win a game, took Thursday off, and on Friday night gave the ball to lefty Wade Miley in the hopes their first step back to relevance would start there. Then they’d go to rookie Mike Bolsinger on Saturday, then to Josh Collmenter on Sunday, then go to Chicago for four games, and what they can do is keep showing up and believing the season will turn.

“It’s hard to turn these things around,” Gibson said, “but we’re capable. You just have to keep playing.”

Years ago, when stuff went bad and there seemed no end to it, Sparky Anderson would tell Gibson, “Break your helmet. Your bat. Do something to make yourself feel better.”

So that’s what Gibson would do. You remember Gibson. He broke a lot of stuff. A couple hours later, he got perhaps the club’s best start of the season out of Miley, gave away a lead in the ninth inning and, in the 12th, the Diamondbacks won their fifth game. They’d beaten the Dodgers. Maybe it was a start, a way to make themselves feel better. Maybe.

“Last time I threw a helmet it bounced back and hit me between the eyes,” Gibson had said. “That’s how good I was going.”

He laughed. Because if he wasn’t going to, nobody else would.

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