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Merrill Kelly exits early as D-backs stumble against Orioles

Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Merrill Kelly (29) gets a new baseball after giving up a two-run home run to Baltimore Orioles' Anthony Santander, right, as Arizona Diamondbacks Christian Walker, middle, looks on during the second inning of a baseball game Tuesday, July 23, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

PHOENIX – There’s just no margin for error right now for the Arizona Diamondbacks. And losing to the Baltimore Orioles definitely qualifies as an error.

Unfortunately for Torey Lovullo’s squad, that’s exactly what happened on Tuesday night. The Orioles began the night 37 games below .500, but jumped on Merrill Kelly for seven runs in the first 2.1 innings anyway. When the dust settled, Arizona had lost by a final of 7-2 in front of 20,253 fans at Chase Field.

Kelly has been one of the D-backs’ pleasant surprises this season. That’s undeniable. But he didn’t have it tonight. Entering the game with a respectable 3.77 ERA and 10 quality starts (second only to Zack Greinke on the team), he cruised through the first. But that was pretty much the end of the fun.

“Unfortunately he made some mistakes in the middle of the plate to the wrong guys at the wrong time and they capitalized on it,” Lovullo explained. “They jumped on him for seven runs. It’s not what we were expecting, but when you throw mistakes and you do some of the things that he did today, you pay for it. The key is how is he going to rebound and come out of it and get better and learn from this experience.”

Renato Nunez led off the second inning with a home run, Dwight Smith followed with a single and Anthony Santander crushed a pitch over the right field wall to give Baltimore a 3-0 lead. And that was only the beginning.

Kelly got two of those runs back with his bat in the bottom half of the inning, picking up a pair of RBIs on his first Major League hit. But he got into trouble again in the top of the third, surrendering four straight hits, capped by a Smith homer to blow the game open.

From there, the D-backs just couldn’t get much going against Dylan Bundy or the Baltimore bullpen. In fact, they never got another runner past first base.

“I think after the seven runs were scored, we got a little flatlined,” Lovullo pointed out. “No doubt about it. There was a tiny bit of energy. We hit a couple balls hard, didn’t have anything to show for it, I think the line drive double play to first base [off the bat of Ketel Marte in the fifth] took a little bit more out of us. Look, it’s a game of rebounding, it’s a game of dealing with the failures and pressing on. We’ve got to do that.”

With the loss, Arizona is now three games back of St. Louis for the second wild card spot. Not that one win or loss in July suddenly decides everything, but this group has clearly been under a microscope with the trade deadline approaching. And a night like tonight doesn’t help.

This seven-game stretch against the hapless Orioles and Marlins was supposed to be the springboard to get the Diamondbacks going. And it still can be. But this was a big speed bump. They host Baltimore again Wednesday afternoon though, before heading to Miami for four games. So the opportunity is still there this week.

Problem is, with so many teams in the wild card race right now, Arizona can’t afford to just hover around .500 anymore. Winning one game doesn’t necessarily mean gaining ground on a playoff spot, but losing definitely means falling behind at least a couple contenders who won elsewhere each night. The Diamondbacks have to string together some victories if they want to have a realistic shot here.

On the bright side, the bullpen pitched well in this one, giving Lovullo 6.2 scoreless innings to work with. And David Peralta appears to be nearing a return. He played DH in an Arizona League game on Tuesday, and Lovullo suggested beforehand that he could be close.

“After the past couple days, and the conversation with him, he’s feeling extremely good,” Lovullo said. “I can tell by looking at him that he’s excited about getting back out there. And I know he’d been grinding to get to this point the last time, so just a totally different turnaround from him getting back on his feet and getting active the last time he was on the injured list.”

The question now, of course, is whether a Peralta return simply means the offense gets a boost at the right time or that he drives up his own trade value with the deadline seven days away.

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