'It started to click': D-Backs' Zac Gallen feeling good ahead of opening day start

Right-hander Zac Gallen finished his final tune-up before the first opening day assignment of his career with what he felt like were encouraging signs. His delivery felt efficient, his velocity was solid, the pitches themselves felt good.

“It was the first time I felt pretty good for all (82) pitches,” Gallen said. “That last (sixth) inning, it started to click.”

The day began for him with official confirmation of something that had been obvious for weeks: that he would take the ball on Thursday night at Dodger Stadium.

Gallen had looked at the calendar and counted days like everyone else, but it wasn’t until earlier this week that manager Torey Lovullo delivered the news — and it wasn’t until this morning that it became official, with Major League Baseball turning every team’s opening day starter decision into a news drop.

“They told me I had to keep it hush-hush until then because MLB was doing a whole shebang,” Gallen said. “My parents kind of knew so I was giving them a heads up for travel plans and what not.”

For those looking for something to worry about, Gallen’s results this spring were not good. He gave up 15 earned runs in 16 1/3 innings, walking 10 and striking out 10. His fastball velocity, too, was down throughout camp, often by several ticks from last year’s 94.1 mph average.

On Friday, Gallen gave up five runs on seven hits and one walk in 5 2/3 innings. He allowed a pair of home runs and averaged 92.5 mph with his fastball.

But Gallen might be the sort of pitcher for whom spring results mean the least. He said he does “zero” work on game planning; he is known during the season for being as fastidious as they come about his advance work, and his ability to stay one step ahead of opposing hitters is a large part of what makes him so hard to hit.

Gallen said results do matter to him in spring training — just not the ones on which most people are focused.

“Me and (pitching strategist Dan Haren) were just texting briefly,” Gallen said. “He said, ‘It’s OK to get hit in spring training. You have no game plan.’ Some guys I’ve never seen before. You have no idea what’s going on out there. For me, I can game plan and have an idea of what I’m going to throw to a lineup and it tends to serve me a little bit better.

In terms of giving up hits, there are probably sequences that I wouldn’t throw that maybe result in hits or walks, but I still need to practice those pitches and have a feel for them.”

Gallen is coming off the best season of his career. He logged a 2.54 ERA in 31 starts, leading the league in fewest baserunners per inning. His performance earned him a fifth-place finish in National League Cy Young voting.

The decision to give him the ball Thursday was an easy one. It will stop a three-year streak of Madison Bumgarner going on opening day. This year, Bumgarner is slated to start the third game, with Merrill Kelly starting in Game 2 and right-hander Zach Davies in Game 4.

“(Gallen) was one of the top pitchers in the National League last year,” manager Torey Lovullo said. “He anchored our star staff all year last year. And I just think he deserves it. It’s an exciting moment for him. It’ll be his first opening day start. And I know that’s an honor. It only happens to 30 pitchers in the big leagues and he’s one of them. He deserves it.”

Pen taking shape

The Diamondbacks bullpen began to come into focus on Friday, along with a new wrinkle: a growing willingness to shift one their young starters into a relief role.

The Diamondbacks told veteran right-hander Jeurys Familia that he would not be making the team and told him they would release him from the minor league deal he signed in the offseason.

Familia had been seen as a favorite to make the club, but despite mid-90s velocity he displayed a lack of swing-and-miss stuff that left the Diamondbacks favoring other candidates.

The Diamondbacks also optioned left-hander Kyle Nelson and right-hander Luis Frias to Triple-A Reno. The decision on Nelson was somewhat surprising. He pitched to a 2.19 ERA in 37 innings last year, most of it coming during a dominant first half of the season.

As it stands, the club appears to have six relievers locked into bullpen spots: Scott McGough, Miguel Castro, Andrew Chafin, Joe Mantiply, Kevin Ginkel and Cole Sulser.

That would leave two spots for four pitchers: non-roster invites Ryan Hendrix and Peter Solomon, prospect Carlos Vargas and whoever does not win the fifth starter’s competition between Ryne Nelson and Drey Jameson.

For most of spring, the Diamondbacks had seemed less inclined to move a young starter to the bullpen, but they seem more willing to do so now, perhaps because of how comfortable they feel with the remaining depth that would be in the Triple-A Reno rotation, namely right-hander Brandon Pfaadt and left-hander Tommy Henry.

General Manager Mike Hazen said the club is trying to ensure that it has enough multi-inning relievers while also maintaining rotation depth.

“Not 100 percent sure we’ll go in that direction, but it’s at least part of the discussion,” Hazen said.

He said if one of the young starters opens in the bullpen and the team has trouble getting him regular long relief outings, it could be forced to choose either to send him down to keep him stretched out or commit more fully to a bullpen role. He sounded opposed to the idea of allowing a starter to get into a reliever’s schedule and then asking him to get stretched out again in the minors.

“I’m not saying we won’t do it, but that’s not my favorite thing in baseball to do,” he said. “We did it with (Randall) Delgado (in 2017) and he ended up getting hurt. We did it in the past with other guys and they ended up getting hurt.”

Short hop

Manager Torey Lovullo said outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. would see time at first base in the final days of spring. If the club were to go with Kyle Lewis over Pavin Smith for the final roster spot, it would lack a true backup first baseman. Gurriel has played 20 games at first base over the past three seasons.

Reds 7, Diamondbacks 4

At Salt River Fields

At the plate: LF Corbin Carroll had two more hits in three at-bats, raising his Cactus League average to .390. 1B Christian doubled off the left-field wall in the sixth, crushing a ball 107.3 mph off RHP Hunter Strickland. 3B Evan Longoria doubled to deep center on a ball that perhaps should have been caught. RF Jake McCarthy lined a single to center to drive in two runs in the Diamondbacks’ four-run sixth.

On the mound: RHP Zac Gallen allowed home runs to a pair of young players with the Reds, 3B Spencer Steer and CF Jose Barrero. He gave up five runs in 5 2/3 innings. “I thought his stuff was crisp,” manager Torey Lovullo said. “He threw a very aggressive fastball late in the game. It tells me that things are trending in a very positive direction for him.” LHP Joe Mantiply and RHP Carlos Vargas each gave up a run in their relief outings while RHP Miguel Castro worked a scoreless ninth. Castro has yet to allow a run in seven appearances.

Saturday’s game: Diamondbacks RHP Peter Solomon vs. Mariners LHP Robbie Ray, 1:10 p.m., Peoria Sports Complex.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Diamondbacks' Zac Gallen feeling good as opening day nears