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Start ‘a big step forward’ for D-backs left-hander Robbie Ray

Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Robbie Ray throws against the Cincinnati Reds during the first inning of a spring training baseball game Monday, Feb. 26, 2018, in Goodyear, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

SURPRISE, Ariz. – Almost anything would’ve been better than the last time Arizona Diamondbacks left-hander Robbie Ray stepped foot on the mound.

Six days ago, he failed to get out of the first inning. On Friday, he made it to the fourth.

“It felt a lot better. My timing was better today, and overall pretty happy with it,” said Ray, who pitched 3.1 innings, allowing one run on two hits with two walks and six strikeouts in the D-backs’ 7-2 win over the Kansas City Royals at Surprise Stadium.

“Today was a big step forward.”

Ray’s only mistake was a solo home run by Royals center fielder Paulo Orlando — Ray’s last batter of the game due to his pitch count — with one out in the fourth inning.

Ray surrendered two home runs in his last start, when the Los Angeles Dodgers tagged him for five total runs in just two-thirds of an inning at Camelback Ranch. It was such a short outing that Ray, after he was removed, went immediately to the bullpen to work on things.

“It helped a lot and my bullpen sessions in-between the last start and this start felt better,” he said. “Just felt like my timing was a lot better today. I worked on it for the past week before this start and it’s getting better but it obviously can get a little better. Just continue to build off of that start and move forward.”

Ray threw 55 pitches, including first-pitch strikes to seven of the 14 batters faced.

“It was a good day for him. He was on the attack, got a lot of swing-and-miss. A couple of things that stood out was some secondary pitches, late in counts to finish off hitters; not necessarily in favorable counts to throw that pitch, the breaking ball, but he did and he’s executing them,” Lovullo said.

“More Robbie Ray-like today.”

Decisions, decisions

Second base, shortstop and closer. Who fills those roles has yet to be decided, and may not be until near the end of spring, according to Lovullo.

With regards to the middle infield, Nick Ahmed, Ketel Marte and Chris Owings are the three players competing for the two spots. Marte and Owings can play either position, which gives Lovullo options during the course of the season.

“We love that depth,” he said Friday. “We love the group of guys that are competing there every single day. And on a given night, you may see somebody help us win a game and then the very next night switch positions. That’s the type of versatility that we like. We like to create that type of diversity within our lineup, and we feel like it’s true National League baseball.”

Three players are also up for the closer’s role: Yoshi Hirano, Brad Boxberger and Archie Bradley; the latter of whom pitched two scoreless innings to earn the win on Friday.

“They’ve been successful. They’re all throwing the ball well. We’re doing our jobs offensively and defensively to create some tough conversations for the staff to have,” Lovullo said, before adding that those conversations have yet to be held. “I feel like it’s still a little bit too early but everybody is paying a lot of attention to some very key spots and you hit on a couple of them.”

BASE HITS

— With neither left fielder David Peralta nor center fielder A.J. Pollock making the trip to Surprise, Lovullo batted Ahmed in the leadoff spot to insure Ahmed got at least three at-bats before calling it an afternoon.

Come the regular season, however, Lovullo made it clear either Peralta or Pollock will be his main leadoff hitters.

“I feel like they’re going to be the catalysts at the top of our lineup,” he said. “That’s kind of where I’m steering this right now in my own mind but there’s a lot of conversations and a lot of time before we need to make that decision.”

— Entering Friday’s action, Peralta (.444) was the D-backs’ best hitter among those players with at least 15 at-bats in Cactus League play. Fellow outfielder Yasmany Tomas was No. 2, batting .412 (7-for-17) with three doubles, two RBI and three walks.

“He has been working really hard to stay through the ball, change his approach,” Lovullo said of Tomas. “We know the power is there. All he’s got to do is just touch the ball and it’s going to go over the fence. But we want to see that he can use the entire diamond and continue to grow and learn as a hitter, as everybody does every single day.”

Tomas recorded his fourth double in Friday’s win and finished 1-for-3.

— One day after his first on-field action of the spring, outfielder Jarrod Dyson reported no issues, according to Lovullo. Dyson played six innings in left field and went 1-for-3 with a run scored and RBI in the D-backs’ 11-6 win over the Milwaukee Brewers.

“We’re going to give him a couple of days off and then kind of ramp him up for a couple of more starts before the off day. But he said he felt fantastic, which was a really good sign yesterday for us,” Lovullo said.

The D-backs are being cautious with Dyson, who underwent offseason surgery to repair a core muscle injury.

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