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Kelly bounces back to snap D-backs’ skid in final game against Giants

Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Merrill Kelly throws against the San Francisco Giants in the first inning during a baseball game Sunday, Aug. 18, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

PHOENIX, Ariz. — Baseball doesn’t always make sense. The Arizona Diamondbacks entered Sunday’s game against San Francisco on a four-game losing streak, sending a slumping Merrill Kelly to the mound to face Madison Bumgarner, of all people. And they were doing it all without Ketel Marte and his tight back in the lineup.

Not exactly a recipe for success on paper. Naturally, they went out and won 6-1 in front of 26,079 fans at Chase Field.

David Peralta homered, Wilmer Flores picked up his seventh and eighth hits of the last three days and Andrew Chafin provided two scoreless innings of relief to fuel the win.

Arizona needed this one. More specifically, the starting pitching needed a performance like this. Kelly in particular.

The D-backs began the day on the verge of slipping completely out of the wild card race. Those four consecutive losses – the last three coming at the hands of San Francisco – had them on the ropes with six weeks remaining in the season. First and foremost, they just needed to stop the bleeding.

It runs deeper than that though. After trading Zack Greinke at the deadline and watching Robbie Ray leave Wednesday’s outing early for a trip to the injured list, starting pitching is now a major concern. And the last four contests have only reinforced that, as Arizona starters combined to surrender 13 earned runs in just 14.2 innings of work.

“I’ll put it on the starting pitchers,” Torey Lovullo said prior to Sunday’s win. “And tell that group that they haven’t been holding serve. Once that falls into place, the bullpen can be structured and you can just format the game the way you want to.”

Turns out, that’s exactly what happened in this one. Kelly held the Giants to just one run in 5.2 innings, striking out five along the way. He exited with the bases loaded in the sixth, but Chafin stepped in with some timely pitching – and heads up fielding – to get out of the jam.

The highlight was a sprint to cover first on a chopper off the bat of Brandon Crawford that nearly caused all sorts of problems.

“It was great teamwork all the way around on that. [Jake] Lamb did his best to dive out of the way and just make sure he was out of the play,” Chafin joked. “Flores made a good play on it and put it right over the bag, and I was there to make the catch.”

That play stranded three Giants on base and kept the score at 4-1 to end the sixth. The D-backs tacked on two more runs, then Archie Bradley came in to finish things off with 1.1 scoreless frames.

Kelly has struggled maybe more than anyone lately, dropping six of his last decisions before Sunday. He’d been touched up for 23 earned runs in his previous 19.1 innings, and the team as a whole was just 1-7 in his last eight starts.

After beginning the season as a quietly reliable No. 5 starter who slowly moved up in the rotation as injuries and demotions chipped away at the guys in front of him, he was finally hitting a wall. But the Diamondbacks need more from the former Sun Devil. And they got it in this one.

“If anything I think it just stems from mindset,” Kelly explained. “Just going out there, mind clear and in attack mode right away.”

For Kelly, this is about more than just the next month and a half. That’s the main focus, of course, but this could also be viewed as an early audition to be part of the 2020 rotation. And while he exceeded expectations in the first half of the 2019 campaign, his spot beyond this year is suddenly not a given. Not with as many as ten starters vying for roles next spring.

There was speculation coming into Sunday’s game that one more stumble might push the 30-year old to towards the bullpen. But if he delivers more efforts like the one he had today, he could still end up making as many as nine more starts this season.

When you’re looking to solidify your role for this year and beyond, that’s an opportunity you can’t afford to pass up.

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