Zac Gallen mastery on display in win over Cardinals: 'His mastery is just crazy'

A familiar scene unfolded in front of Zac Gallen’s locker Sunday afternoon. A handful of eager reporters gathered around, joined by a few television cameras, all hoping to hear the Diamondbacks’ ace describe his own greatness. Over the preceding three hours, Gallen had shut down the Cardinals, striking out seven in six scoreless innings. By most measurements, it was the best performance of Gallen’s season, lowering his ERA to 1.64 in four starts.

So what did Gallen have to say about all of that?

“I felt like I was grinding a little bit,” Gallen said, opening his postgame news conference after a 5-0 win over St. Louis. It was the same description he had for many of his best starts a year ago. This time, he said he even told manager Torey Lovullo throughout his outing, “Today's a day where I feel like I'm not at my best.” That wasn’t Gallen asking for an early hook, but just keeping his manager apprised.

Perhaps, though, a better perspective on Gallen can be gained from going outside the ace’s own brain. Two lockers down, catcher Tucker Barnhart was processing the outing he had just been a part of. Barnhart spent the first 10 seasons of his big league career with the Reds, Tigers and Cubs before signing with Arizona this off-season to back up Gabriel Moreno. On Sunday, he caught Gallen for the first time in a regular season game.

“His command is just crazy,” Barnhart said. “It makes our job easy in terms of receiving the ball. … Obviously I've been around a lot of guys and he's up there in terms of the fun that guys are to catch.”

For Barnhart, the joy is in the puzzle of deciding how to attack hitters. With Gallen on the mound, that puzzle suddenly has more solutions.

Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Zac Gallen (23) readies himself to pitch in the fifth inning during a game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Chase Field.
Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Zac Gallen (23) readies himself to pitch in the fifth inning during a game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Chase Field.

“He has four high quality pitches that allow you to attack hitters differently,” Barnhart said.

That shone through in the two most crucial moments of Sunday’s game. In the second inning, Gallen loaded the bases with one out. It might have been early, but with the score locked at zero, Barnhart felt that the “game was on the line.” Gallen was up to the challenge, going with a curveball-heavy approach to Brandon Crawford before freezing him on a full-count fastball at the knees.

Two innings later, Gallen was in trouble again. The Cardinals had a runner on third with one out for Ivan Herrera, who had ripped a slider for a single earlier in the game. This time, Gallen and Barnhart changed their approach, getting Herrera to strike out with a diet of two fastballs and four curveballs. The next batter was Crawford, who again found himself at the plate in a key spot. On the first pitch, Gallen opted for his changeup. It was his least-used pitch of the day, but in the moment, it was the right recipe to induce a meek pop out.

Those two jams, and Gallen’s ability to wriggle out of them, may seem like independent events. Not quite.

“I was already thinking about the second time through before we were through the first time through the order,” Barnhart said. “Just in terms of (Gallen’s) ability that allows you to be creative and set up pitches and sequence things differently. It's a lot of fun.”

It took a while to break through but, eventually, the Diamondbacks’ offense rewarded their ace’s performance. In the fifth inning, they strung together two singles, two doubles and two walks, bringing five runs across. Manager Torey Lovullo later lauded his team’s “consistent approaches,” something that eluded them in difficult series against the Yankees and Braves last week.

This day, though, belonged to Gallen. It was, despite his perpetual bashfulness, a step forward.

“I feel like I'm getting really close, honestly,” Gallen said.

Often, that assessment might belong to a pitcher whose ERA starts with a six or a seven. Gallen, though, is constantly tweaking some aspect of his game. And last season, even as he finished third in NL Cy Young voting with a 3.47 ERA, he never felt quite as strong as he did down the stretch in 2022. Now, he believes his mechanics are coming into form. “Timing, rhythm, tempo,” Gallen said. “All your normal stuff that pitchers talk about.”

And Gallen did, eventually, explain the logic in his postgame assessments.

“I think that's just me really striving, not for perfection, but just for excellence,” Gallen said. “I know what it feels like and what it takes.”

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Zac Gallen mastery on display in win over Cardinals: 'His mastery is just crazy'