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D-backs stay committed to Alex Avila, three-catcher rotation

Arizona Diamondbacks' Alex Avila (5) is greeted by Zack Godley (52) after hitting a two-run home run against the Chicago Cubs during the fourth inning of a baseball game, Thursday, July 26, 2018, in Chicago. (AP Photo/David Banks)

PHOENIX — The Arizona Diamondbacks haven’t wavered in their commitment to their pitching staff since general manager Mike Hazen arrived before the 2017 season.

That reflected in not only how the front office has managed the pitchers but in how it has set that staff up for success.

An overhaul at catcher made for a three-deep rotation behind the plate. Perhaps none of the five catchers who’ve played for the D-backs over the last two seasons have exemplified Arizona’s commitment to its defense and game-calling at the position more than Alex Avila.

That’s because he’s struggled at the plate — mightily.

Since a one-hit, one-RBI opening night, he’s batted below the Mendoza line (.200). In May, he batted .079 for the month. On June 17, one game played before he hit the disabled list with a hamstring strain, Avila was met with boos from the D-backs’ home crowd as he bottomed out with a .109 average for the year.

“Sometimes you suck. That’s baseball. We’re not robots. We’re human,” Avila said Monday before catching Zack Godley in a 14-inning marathon victory.  “Sometimes you don’t play well. You got to figure it out physically and mentally and continue the grind.”

If July was any indication, that continued push forward has paid off even if Avila’s average still sits at .168 as of Tuesday.

Avila returned from his disabled list stint on July 7 and in 32 at-bats since — he has 137 total at-bats this season — has produced eight of his 15 total RBI. Ten of his 22 total hits this year came since July 7 as well.

“Things didn’t go great for him the first few months of the season,” Arizona manager Torey Lovullo said Monday. “When you watch somebody who has been on that low side of things come out the other side, you’re really happy for them. I was pinch-hitting for him. I was doing things that he probably didn’t have done to him a lot in his career and he took it right in stride.

“Every time I had conversations with him, he said, ‘I’m here to do whatever I can to help this team win, and hopefully at some point I get this thing moving in the right direction and show you what I’m capable of doing,'” Lovullo added. “I’d always talk to him about not worrying about that because I was well aware of his track record.”

Avila could be asked to do more from here on out. After stocking up its bullpen at the trade deadline, Arizona faces roster decisions moving forward, and the team’s commitment to retaining three catchers will be tested.

It sustained that test Monday night when third baseman Deven Marrero, upon a return from the disabled list, was designated for assignment. Still, outfielder Jarrod Dyson is on the mend from a groin injury.

If and when he’s ready to return, the Diamondbacks must again make a difficult call and consider how their catching rotation would be affected as a two-man unit.

Offensively, a shaved depth chart just might help the two remaining catchers get a better rhythm.

Behind the plate, playing more often with more responsibilities, Arizona just might take a hit if it strays from a three-catcher active roster.

“It allows the three of us to kind of have full attention on the defensive side, game-calling and stuff,” Avila said of the three-catcher rotation on Monday. “Over the course of the year it’s had its ups and downs on the offensive side for all of us, but the three of us have done really well behind the plate as well.

“You kind of take the highs with the lows as well. Hopefully, we can be able to contribute at some point, whoever’s playing on the offensive side, but keep doing what we’re doing behind the plate.”

While Avila has received much of the scorn from fans, Arizona’s other catchers have also struggled with bats in their hands.

Jeff Mathis and John Ryan Murphy are both hitting below .210 this year with on-base percentages below .300. Murphy hasn’t recorded a hit since July 6.

The 31-year-old Avila, who signed a two-year contract this offseason, has the better offensive resume as a .234 career hitter. He’s hitting .273 since the All-Star break, and his OPS has jumped from .549 before the break to .914 since. Avila said he never thought about potentially losing more than an occasional at-bat due to his dry hitting spell.

“I’ve been playing for a long time. That kind of stuff doesn’t really worry me anymore,” the catcher added Monday before walking twice and doubling against the Phillies.

His stubbornness to keep grinding through the month of May appears to have paid off. So does Lovullo’s stubbornness in keeping with his three-catcher plan as Arizona sits 0.5 games ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers atop the NL West.

“I couldn’t have asked for anything more as far as how he’s been able to communicate with the three of us, letting us know what his plan is,” Avila said of his manager. “The three of us have been on board from Day 1.”

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