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Why the Arizona Diamondbacks remain optimistic despite poor start to season

ARLINGTON, Texas — The Arizona Diamondbacks' season has, to this point, rested somewhere between disappointment and disaster. Just past the one-third mark, they are 25-30. Only a handful of teams with legitimate pre-season playoff aspirations have been worse.

But that does not mean the season has to be a disaster, or even that it’s particularly close to reaching that point. The Diamondbacks are only three games out of a playoff spot with 107 games to play. In the three-wild card era, there’s plenty of margin for error.

And beneath the veneer of what has been an infuriating offense, there are tangible reasons to believe in a turnaround.

“We have very strong starting pitching,” manager Torey Lovullo said, outlining the optimistic scenario. “We have a really good back end of our bullpen. We pick up the ball defensively.”

The rotation is a good place to start. So far, the Diamondbacks' rotation ranks just 21st with a 4.31 ERA, but it’s been a tale of two groups.

The five members of Arizona’s first-choice rotation are Zac Gallen, Merrill Kelly, Jordan Montgomery, Brandon Pfaadt and Eduardo Rodriguez (who has yet to appear in a game). Combined, that group has a solid 3.70 ERA, with reason for optimism even beyond that number.

Pfaadt’s underlying numbers suggest his ERA could be nearly a run lower. His walk rate, in particular, is one of the best in baseball. After recent starts, he’s consistently been encouraged by his performances.

Montgomery, too, should be better going forward. His 4.69 ERA would be his worst ever in a full season, as would his 5.4 strikeouts per nine. But his last start was the best he’s felt all season. “Finally, stuff was moving how it’s supposed to,” Montgomery said. Given that he missed all of spring training, it makes sense that he would only now be finding a rhythm.

The other part of the Diamondbacks’ rotation has been comprised of second-choice pitchers. That group includes Ryne Nelson, Tommy Henry, Slade Cecconi and Blake Walston. Together, they have a 5.64 ERA in 21 starts. No one envisioned those four getting so many opportunities, but injuries have forced Arizona’s hand. With both Kelly and Rodriguez likely returning before the All-Star break, their role should decrease soon. It’s not hard to see the Diamondbacks having a top-five rotation in the second half of the season.

Arizona Diamondbacks closer Paul Sewald (38) celebrates with catcher Gabriel Moreno (14) after defeating the Cincinnati Reds 2-1 at Chase Field in Phoenix on May 15, 2024.
Arizona Diamondbacks closer Paul Sewald (38) celebrates with catcher Gabriel Moreno (14) after defeating the Cincinnati Reds 2-1 at Chase Field in Phoenix on May 15, 2024.

The starting rotation is waiting for a boost that the bullpen has already received. On May 7, Paul Sewald returned from an oblique strain to stabilize the closer role. Since his return, the bullpen has protected all but one lead.

“Having Paul back lengthens our bullpen so much more,” catcher Tucker Barnhart said. “It allows you to use (Ryan Thompson) in the seventh inning, it allows you to use Joe (Mantiply) as an opener, use him sixth, seventh, eighth, whenever leverage makes sense. And then (Kevin Ginkel), we have so many more options with Paul back. It's crazy that one guy lengthens a bullpen so much but he does and he's nails in the ninth.”

That effect changed Arizona’s bullpen last summer, transforming it from a poor unit in July to an elite one by the postseason. So far, history looks to be repeating itself.

The Diamondbacks’ defense should also be in line for a boost soon, even if they don’t really need it. They currently lead baseball in outs above average, with first baseman Christian Walker and catcher Gabriel Moreno impressing again after winning Gold Gloves last year. In the coming weeks, they’ll add shortstop Geraldo Perdomo and center fielder Alek Thomas — two excellent defenders at key positions — to the mix.

Right now, there’s no doubt the outlook is discouraging for the Diamondbacks. This season has not been what anybody in the organization envisioned after they reached the World Series and pushed their payroll to record levels.

Ask Lovullo, though, and he’d prefer to see his pitching — and defense — leading the charge rather than the other way around.

“It doesn't look great when the offense doesn't have the continuity and the success that we all expect, but I think pitching and defense keep you in games,” Lovullo said. ”And that's why a lot of these games have been (close).”

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Turning those close losses into wins will just require an offensive pulse. For more than a month, that has been elusive.

“I believe in the group that they're gonna continue to learn and grow offensively and find a way out of this,” Lovullo said. “And when we do, it's gonna be very productive. For the entire year, we're not gonna average three runs per game. That's not gonna be the case. This is a proven offensive group.”

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Why the Arizona Diamondbacks remain optimistic despite poor start