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Dan Bickley

D-backs stopped the bleeding just in time in the middle of a strange season

Arizona Diamondbacks' Daniel Descalso (3) celebrates his run scored against the Milwaukee Brewers with David Peralta, left, and manager Torey Lovullo (17) during the fourth inning of a baseball game Monday, May 14, 2018, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Torey Lovullo has an expressive face. You know when he needs a nap.

Following Sunday’s 6-1 victory over the Marlins, the Diamondbacks manager showed familiar signs of attrition: Unshaven. Grey stubble storming his face. Trademark bags under his eyes, a recurring condition whenever Lovullo starts wearing the grind.

He seemed like the perfect hood ornament. Happy but haggard. Just like the team he stewards.

For now, catastrophe has been averted. The Diamondbacks won five of six games on a litmus-test homestand at Chase Field. They had a 4-0 lead in the only game they lost, with Patrick Corbin on the mound. They easily dispatched a pair of bottom-feeders, effectively proving they are not a bad team.

But they’re in the midst of a strange season, starting with the manager.

Lovullo made headlines by dropping a heavyweight expletive on Yadier Molina during a home-plate argument in early April. The decorated Cardinals star was deeply insulted, lashing out at Lovullo after the game.

After a dreadful performance from Paul Goldschmidt in May, Lovullo asked his slugger for advice before a post-game press conference, wondering what he should tell the media. Goldschmidt’s response – “Just tell them that I suck” – will be one of the mileposts of the season, no matter how it turns out.

Lovullo has also been heavily criticized for lineup decisions and his loyalty to Alex Avila, making John Ryan Murphy fight too hard for playing time. He publicly wondered if Diamondbacks hitters were receiving too much information in pre-game meetings, paralyzing their brains at home plate. The latter also represents another major turning point in the 2018 season.

For whatever reasons, the Diamondbacks felt compelled to implement a new hitting approach in the closing months of 2017. The rush-job on the new “tunneling” philosophy speaks to heavy belief and organizational buy-in. Why else would the front office unveil a new strategy in the heat of a playoff race?

But the Diamondbacks shriveled in May. Their offensive was historically bad. Position players struggled in unison. Paul Goldschmidt looked especially unsettled, late on fastballs, carrying the burden of information overload.

During their short reign in Arizona, the Diamondbacks’ new regime has made an instant impact with many astute maneuvers. I wouldn’t trade the rising tandem of Lovullo and Mike Hazen for any other manager-GM combination in Major League Baseball, including the Cubs’ Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein. But something awful happened here in May, and it seemed to reveal a team that wasn’t empowered by the dizzying crunch of numbers. They were rendered impotent.

It seemed to reveal an organization smarter than ever before, and occasionally too smart for their own good.

Following a sweep of the Marlins, there is renewed optimism. Lovullo likes how his hitters are barreling up. Goldschmidt seems more comfortable. We all need to forget this team was once 13 games over .500, in command of the National League West. They stopped the bleeding just in time, before their losses outnumbered their victories.

“I think we grew and learned from it,” Lovullo told reporters after Sunday’s game. “I think we showed some toughness. And it’s going to prepare us for the tough stretches ahead.”

A little scar tissue might help this baseball team. The return of Robbie Ray and Shelby Miller will make a noticeable difference. And we should all feel inspired by the collective maturity shown by this team.

During tough times, key performers like Nick Ahmed and Archie Bradley had no problem voicing their views on the new hitting approach. They admitted it was a difficult change for some, but represented only a small portion of their struggles. Their ability to speak so candidly about an organizational rollout gone wrong speaks volumes about the clubhouse culture.

The Diamondbacks don’t have a surplus of electric personalities. But unlike football players in New England, they aren’t afraid to speak freely. Their honesty is a tribute to what Lovullo has built inside the walls. And it sounds like the new guys are smart enough to know when to step back, liberating their hitters with a softer touch.

Either way, the Diamondbacks did more than chew on soft candy over the past six games. They stayed in the divisional race. They found a way to stay relevant around water coolers. And with the NBA draft and training camp fast approaching, that’s no easy feat in Arizona.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.

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Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and AZCentral.com and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to ArizonaSports.com.
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier