06 April 2011

Opening Week of Baseball

Welcome back to baseball season, fans! Week one of the 2011 season has been a topsy-turvy, eventful, oddity-filled slugfest.

I've been watching a lot of games thus far, and plenty of out-of-market games thanks to the MLB Network Extra Innings package preview that goes on until this Sunday. A little Yankees-Tigers-Orioles-Twins-Giants-Dodgers-Cardinals-Mets kind of action. It's been awesome!

Of course, I've been watching the Diamondbacks the most. We have played five games, and had one "snow-out" of the DBacks-Rockies game earlier this week. And after one time through the Diamondbacks rotation, we stand at 2 wins, 3 losses. Opening Day in Colorado, the Diamondbacks fielded Ian Kennedy on the mound against Ubaldo Jimenez in a wild extra-inning affair. Gerardo Parra ended up scoring the winning run on a wild pitch in the 11th inning after the Rockies had tied it on a wild throw on a dropped third strike from Miguel Montero and a couple odd plays. I saw something I have never before seen during a Diamondbacks game (though I'm sure it's happened before): a fan interference call on a pop foul down the third base line which was (purportedly) touched by a fan before Gerardo Parra could make a play on it. I say purported because I think we caught a bit of a break there, but I'll take it.

In the second game versus the Rockies, Daniel Hudson allowed three runs over 6 innings and took a loss as the team couldn't put together any offense for him against Jorge de la Rosa. Same deal with game four (game three having been snowed out) as a Willie Bloomquist leadoff home run made everyone think we would have a great offensive game, but sadly Joe Saunders had to take a tough loss as he allowed two runs over 6 innings including a solo homer to Alfonso Soriano, and the Diamondbacks went into a hitting drought the rest of the night.

Game five showcased my guy Barry Enright (@BarryEnright54 on Twitter) taking on Andrew Cashner of the Cubbies. After a really strong Spring, Enright showed a mortal side allowing four of the Cubs' six runs over 6 innings on just 7 hits. He got off the hook for the loss, though, as the Diamondbacks tied the game up in the top of the seventh on a monster 2-out, 2-RBI single by Bloomquist (having a stupendous year thus far). Sam Demel, unfortunately, allowed two runs in the bottom of the frame, and despite a ninth-inning rally, the Snakes lost 5-6.

Today's game was the best of the season to this point by far. The Diamondbacks started out slow defensively... with two incredible diving catches to open the bottom of the first by 2011 All-Star Chris Young (too soon, Arizona?). The first, a full-out snowcone catch to his left was just snared out of midair and looked awesome. The second, all of one pitch later, tailed and dove down and away from Young as he ranged again to his left and scooped the ball inches off the grass. We might just want to call this the Chris Young Game of the Year right here. In the third inning, Young, again, with the bat this time, his a bloop single out to centerfielder Marlon Byrd of the Cubs, who tried to pull a C.Y. and dive for the ball, but it scooted an inch out of reach and wound up rolling into center. Young had a stand-up triple, but Alfonso Soriano booted the ball and allowed Chris Young to score what was termed a "Little League home run." If I were the Official Scorer, I'd have given Chris the Inside the Park Homer, but alas, a triple and error will have to suffice.

Fast forward to the bottom of the 4th inning: Tyler Colvin hits a BOMB out to deep left-center field which the wind blowing in helps to just barely keep in the park. Chris Young, again, ran out and jumped into the bricks of the wall making a third incredible catch to rob a double. In the top of the fifth, Young at bat again also hit a long, tailing fly ball to deep left field which the wind, like Colvin's, helped to just barely keep in the park. Unlike Colvin's, however, Soriano booted Young's fly ball and allowed Chris to reach third base with a double and an error. Armando Galarraga got his first win as a Diamonback, allowing four runs over 7 innings and doing just better than Ryan Dempster, who surrendered five runs over the same amount of time. JJ Putz, the new Diamondbacks closer, also picked up his second save, but the true hero of the night pitching-wise might just be Juan Gutierrez, who, despite loading the bases in the 8th inning on a fielder's choice, a single, and a walk, got Tyler Colvin to ground out, scoring one run, and then got a HUGE strikeout of Alfonso Soriano with runners at second and third (the tying runs).

Overall, yes, the DBacks are 2-3 with a losing record going into their first homestand. But there are glimmers of rebuilding success. The bullpen is looking much improved. You expect that over the course of 162 games the bullpen is inevitably going to blow a few saves, but you also expect the big strikeouts and double plays from time to time too. JJ Putz looks great as the closer thus far, and reliever Kam Mickolio (Mick-OH-lie-OH) has been tremendous so far. Willie Bloomquist, the replacement for the injured Stephen Drew, has hit in all five games so far, and of course, Young's defense today was a huge enjoyment for me. Some things you won't see in a box score: the Diamondbacks are playing much more aggressively than last year, something certainly attributable to Manager Kirk Gibson's new attitude for the team. Justin Upton has been fired up (even having a few words at one point with the equally fiery Miguel Montero), Bloomquist has stolen five bases to open the season (contributing to a total of eight by the team), and the competition for playing time by players like Miranda, Branyan, Nady, Roberts, and Bloomquist has been exciting to watch. Stephen Drew may not get hs job back if Willie keeps on hitting and stealing bases like he has been!

We also have a few areas where we need to work on some things movng forward. A big part of the Spring was spent on executing better pickoff plays - and the club has put on quite a few attempts in these first five games. Snap throws to first or second have been particularly poorly executed, at one point leading to a winning run against the Cubs in game one of that series. The "daylight play" whereby the shortstop sneaks in behind a runner at second seems to be a particular favorite of Bloomquist, but doing so causes him to vacate his position and opens a big hole through the left side of the infield. It should be used sparingly. Also, the Diamondbacks are a notoriously streaky club when it comes to both hitting and pitching. Once through the rotation, energy levels have been high, and pitchers have been executing pitches, but that needs to continue. Armando Galarraga, while he pitched well enough today, also was pretty wild at times. His strikes were exceptional, but his balls were seemingly in random spots. Need to watch that. Barry Enright, too, had a tough first outing, but that might just be first-start jitters. I expect good stuff from him this year if he can keep the ball down.

Overall, I give this first road trip a C+ grade. We played well enough to essentially split the trip, but we also made a few sloppy errors. Our saving grace was a few (possibly blown) calls that went our way, but we cannot and should not count on those the remainder of the season. The hitting is above average right now, and if we can get the right timely hits with runners in scoring position like in today's game, we'll be a force. Likewise with pitching: the right combination of control and proper fundamental defense behind us, and we'll be back to winning in no time.