Zac Gallen gets back to his dominant best, leads Diamondbacks past Rockies

Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Zac Gallen throws against the Colorado Rockies during the first inning of a baseball game Tuesday, May 30, 2023, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Zac Gallen throws against the Colorado Rockies during the first inning of a baseball game Tuesday, May 30, 2023, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Zac Gallen did not point to any particular moment, any single pitch or play where his night changed. He said only that his first inning “didn’t feel super sharp” but that the outing progressed from there.

The shift in the fortunes, though, was more drastic than Gallen let on.

Before Elias Díaz flied out to end the third inning Tuesday, the Rockies’ average exit velocity off Gallen was 95.4 mph, which would have been tied for the worst mark of his career. In those first three innings, he walked two and struck out just one.

Gallen had held the final line together, preventing any runs from crossing and setting the tone for a 5-1 win, but it wasn’t the Diamondbacks’ ace at his domineering best. In a lot of ways, it resembled his previous outing, when he shut out the Phillies for the first five innings, but did so without his customary brilliance, only striking out three and walking two.

Over the final three innings, Gallen got back to doing what he does best: Sucking the life out of opposing hitters. The Rockies managed a pair of doubles in those innings, but Gallen made them irrelevant with six strikeouts and no walks. After getting just four whiffs on the Rockies’ first 22 swings, he got 11 on their final 22.

From the Diamondbacks’ dugout, Torey Lovullo saw Gallen shift into a different gear after a fourth inning strikeout of Nolan Jones.

“He had a gameplan and then made a tiny adjustment to it and got a really good feel for his curveball,” Lovullo said. “So I think it was fastball command and then the swing and miss curveball. There was a swing and miss curveball to (Jones) then several followed for the next couple of innings. So I think he had a really good feel for that pitch and that got him into a good rhythm.”

After his start in Philadelphia, Gallen paid “heightened attention” to his curveball this week, trying to recollect his feel for the pitch.

During one five start stretch earlier this year, batters whiffed on over half their swings against that curveball. In four of those starts, Gallen did not allow a run as he struck out 41 batters in 27 innings. But over his previous four starts entering Tuesday, Gallen had found less success. In those outings, he only got whiffs on 31.7% of his curveballs — a rate below his career average.

“Curveball was big this week,” Gallen said. “I felt like I was close, just didn't feel super great about it. So really just tried to work on the curveball. Trial and error really, seeing what works and what doesn't work.”

By the middle innings Tuesday, Gallen had everything working in concert. The curveball “felt a lot better than it had the last few starts.” The fastball command “allowed me to be ahead in the count.” Together, it made the Rockies look helpless.

The penultimate batter to face Gallen, Kris Bryant, struck out looking on a fastball spotted up on the lower edge of the zone. The final batter, Harold Castro, waved past a curveball in the dirt.

By that point, the offense had already given Gallen a comfortable cushion. Ketel Marte and Evan Longoria hit first inning homers to put the Diamondbacks up, 3-0. Corbin Carroll scored in the fourth, walking and then stealing two bases before scoring on a Gabriel Moreno sacrifice fly. In the sixth, Carroll helped the cause in a different way, hitting his ninth homer of the year out to right.

It was, in Lovullo’s words, “one of those games where … so many things were done on a very good level.” And as is so often the case, it all started with Gallen.

“He just gets into that Zac mode,” Lovullo said. “And we all become Zac watchers.”

Carson Kelly set to begin rehab assignment

Carson Kelly will begin a rehab assignment this week, Diamondbacks Manager Torey Lovullo said Tuesday. Kelly is set to meet Triple-A Reno in Oklahoma City on Tuesday night, go through workouts on Wednesday and start at catcher on Thursday.

Kelly fractured a bone in his right forearm when he was hit by a pitch in a spring training game on March 20. He was placed on the 15-day injured list to start the season before being transferred to the 60-day list 10 days ago in order to clear a spot on the 40-man roster. Because the move is retroactive to Opening Day, Kelly is eligible to be activated at any point — a move that will require the Diamondbacks to clear a 40-man roster spot.

Lovullo did not provide a timeline for Kelly’s rehab assignment. In the past two years, Kelly has had rehab assignments of four and five minor league starts. Following that timeline, he could be activated at some point during the Diamondbacks’ upcoming six-game road trip to Washington and Detroit.

When Kelly returns, he and Gabriel Moreno will split reps behind the plate, although the team has not determined how those starts will be divvied up. Moreno is hitting .296 with a .721 OPS and a National League-best 13 runners caught stealing. His 54.2% caught stealing rate is by far the best in baseball.

Moreno’s backup, José Herrera, is hitting .255 with a .686 OPS. He will almost certainly be optioned to Triple-A when Kelly returns.

In other injury news, reliever Joe Mantiply faced Kelly in a session of live at-bats at Salt River Fields on Monday. Mantiply is nearing a return, though the team has yet to decide whether he will need another outing in the Arizona Complex League before beginning a rehab assignment.

Outfielder Kyle Lewis is continuing to build up strength on a rehab assignment of his own in Triple-A. Lovullo said the Diamondbacks have not determined how much longer Lewis will need before returning to the majors. It is also possible that he could be optioned to Triple-A upon his activation. While Pavin Smith is just 4 for 40 at the plate over the past two weeks, he offers more defensive versatility than Lewis.

Rockies at Diamondbacks, 6:40 p.m., Chase Field

Diamondbacks RHP Zac Gallen (6-2, 2.97) vs. Rockies LHP Kyle Freeland (4-5, 3.86).

Gallen gave up two runs in 5 2/3 innings against the Phillies last week at Citizens Bank Park, a game the Diamondbacks led, 5-0, but wound up losing, 6-5, in 10 innings. Gallen took a shutout into the sixth and came within a strike of escaping the inning without damage. … Gallen's curveball has been his best pitch for swings and misses, eliciting whiffs at a 41.9 percent clip. … Gallen owns a 2.66 ERA in 12 career starts against the Rockies. … Freeland has been mostly terrific in the month of May, giving up two runs or less in four of his five starts. The lone exception was a clunker against the high-powered Rangers, who scored eight runs (five earned) off Freeland in two innings. … Freeland faced the Diamondbacks on April 28, giving up three runs in six innings in a game the Diamondbacks won, 9-1, at Coors Field. … 2B Ketel Marte has hit him well, going 12 for 37 (.324) with four doubles and two homers.

Monday game recap: Drey Jameson sparkles in relief in Diamondbacks' win over Rockies

Coming up

Wednesday: At Chase Field, 6:40 p.m., Diamondbacks LHP Tommy Henry (2-1, 4.50) vs. Rockies RHP Connor Seabold (1-2, 5.94).

Thursday: At Chase Field, 12:40 p.m., Diamondbacks RHP Zach Davies (0-1, 5.68) vs. Rockies RHP Chase Anderson (0-0, 1.31).

Friday: At Chase Field, 6:40 p.m., Diamondbacks RHP Merrill Kelly (6-3, 2.83) vs. Braves RHP Charlie Morton (5-5, 3.59).

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Diamondbacks beat Rockies behind Zac Gallen and Corbin Carroll