The Arizona Diamondbacks have been a question mark throughout the 2012 MLB season, performing well below the expectations many made at the start of the year.
But somehow, the D-backs are still in the hunt for the NL West crown with only a month and a half until October baseball begins. With only four games standing between them and division leader San Francisco, it was a crucial time for the ballclub to execute, starting with a 10-game road trip through Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
The D-backs entered Dodgers Stadium with newly acquired third baseman Chris Johnson and General Manager Kevin Towers believing his team could get the job done.
The team came through in spades.
An 8-for-12, five RBI and two home run series by Paul Goldschmidt lifted the D-backs to 7-2, 8-2 and 4-0 victories, aided by Miguel Montero’s two home runs and Johnson’s sensational debut. The former Astro hit a grand slam in his first game with the team and added another homer in the last game of the series.
The starting pitching put on a fantastic showing, as well. Trevor Cahill allowed six hits, a run and struck out four, getting his ninth win of the year. Wade Miley continued his impressive rookie campaign by winning his 12th game, giving up three hits but striking out seven in eight innings. And Patrick Corbin, fresh from Triple-A Reno, struck out five and walked two in his sixth start in the majors.
A sweep of their division rival put the team two games behind the Giants and the NL West lead.
The D-backs entered the City of Brotherly Love on a four-game winning streak and taking six of their past seven. They extended that streak during the first game of three, winning 4-2 on home runs from Jason Kubel and Justin Upton (the latter’s 100th of his career), and Ian Kennedy’s solid seven-hit, two-run effort.
But Philadelphia wasn’t just going to roll over and die, especially when they still have Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, arguably two of the best pitchers in baseball. The former made that apparent during the second game of the series, shutting out the D-backs 3-0, while netting five strikeouts in seven innings.
On the cusp of losing the series, the D-backs needed to show off some gusto, albeit against left-handed ace Lee. They started the third game on the right foot, with Chris Johnson and Stephen Drew hitting back-to-back home runs in the second inning and Goldschmidt adding a homer of his own in the sixth. Cahill continued his strong pitching, allowing three runs on six hits in seven innings.
However, reliever David Hernandez couldn’t keep Cahill’s lead, giving up a run in the eighth inning on a throwing error. With the score tied 4-4 in the ninth and extra innings looming, Ryan Howard singled to right field, giving the Phillies the series victory.
There were some positives from Philadelphia, as Upton looked like his old self, batting an astounding .546 in the series. The starting pitching was solid all around and Chris Johnson gave another sterling performance.
But losing two of three meant the D-backs fell right back to where they started on the road trip: four games behind the NL West lead.
Heading across state to Pittsburgh, the D-backs prepared for a four-game series at PNC Park, where the Pirates have the best home-field winning percentage in the MLB. Entering the Steel City on a losing streak, the D-backs were hopeful to reverse their fortunes by pitting Miley (12-6) against Erik Bedard (5-12), who at this point, led the majors in losses.
But no one expected Bedard to deliver the performance he did Monday. The left-hander blanked the D-backs, striking out five during seven innings, retiring 17 batters in a row. Although Miley didn’t allow an earned run over his six innings on the mound, he just couldn’t compare to his competition.
The D-backs answered the next game behind a 15-hit offensive clinic, highlighted by Johnson’s 408-feet, three-run homer in the eighth and a two-run homer in the ninth. Montero drove in two runs while Corbin gave up two runs in six innings in the team’s 10-4 win.
Arizona fell short of a comeback Wednesday, falling to the Pirates 7-6. Ian Kennedy continued his struggles this season, pitching only four innings after surrendering eight hits and six runs. Willie Bloomquist and Paul Goldschmidt tried to get the offense going, both adding runs in the seventh and eighth, respectively. But the D-backs’ bats weren’t enough as the team dropped four of their past five, heading into the series finale.
Thankfully, the D-backs found their mojo Thursday afternoon in the form of Jason Kubel’s two home runs and Joe Saunders’ effective pitching through seven innings. Though Saunders appeared to lose his confidence in the second after allowing three runs, he pulled it together, allowing only three more hits for the rest of his performance. However, the highlight of the game was newly acquired catcher Wil Nieves blasting a 368-feet home run in his first game in a D-backs jersey.
With the 6-3 victory, the D-backs split the series with Pittsburgh, giving the team a total of six wins and four losses, boosting their record to 57-55.
So through all that, what did we learn?
Well from a win/loss perspective, nothing new. Though the team increased their record to two games above .500, the D-backs are still four games behind the Giants for the NL West lead.
But from a personnel angle, we’ve learned the D-backs still have the pieces to make a run for the division. Goldschmidt continues to show why he’s a valuable part of the offensive display, the pitching staff continues to perform admirably (sans Kennedy), and Upton seems to be out of his early-season slump.
And Chris Johnson could very well be the best July acquisition of any MLB team. Since joining the D-backs, the 27-year-old is batting .323 with five home runs and 16 RBI, a feat which has MLB Insider Tim Kurkjian calling Johnson “a different player”.
With 50 games left in the 2012 season, the D-backs need to keep pushing forward if they want a shot at competing in the Fall Classic. While the record indicates otherwise, the D-backs still have some fight in them.