There have been several marked improvements for the Diamondbacks this season, but none in quite a reversal mode as the bullpen.
With the bullpen’s collective ERA allowing over six runs per game a year ago, the first order of business for general manager Kevin Towers was to clear all dead wood and bring in effective pitchers.
With a reputation of building teams from the pitching staff first to position players, Towers immediately transformed his staff into a collective, viable force.
With Micah Owings as the key long reliever and Joe Paterson, Brad Ziegler, Bryan Shaw, David Hernandez and closer J. J, Putz supplying needed productivity, the conversion was pronounced.
When starter Joe Saunders lasted only three innings in Game Four in this National League Division Series, manager Kirk Gibson immediately went to the bullpen of Owings, Jarrod Parker, Shaw, Hernandez and Putz. That contingent represented the catalyst in the Diamondbacks’ highly charged 10-6 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers before 38,830 at Chase Field Oct. 4.
The victory now evens this NLDS at 2-2, and forces a fifth and deciding game Friday Oct. 7 at Miller Park. That’s when Ian Kennedy, who lost Game One of this series, will try and help the D-backs advance to the National League Championship Series. He’ll be opposed by Game One winner Yovani Gallardo.
With a shaky beginning, Gibson did not hesitate to remove an ineffective Saunders, who, in three innings, allowed five hits and three runs, but left with a 7-3 lead.
Enter, the bullpen.
“My job is to come in, make pitches and hold the game where it is at that point,” said Owings. “From there, turn things over to Hernandez and Putz. I’ve been put in a great situation, and I can’t say enough for this opportunity.”
To add depth to the bullpen for post-season play, Gibson added starter Jarrod Parker to the playoff roster and announced the 22 year-old would join relievers. Parker is coming off an impressive major debut Sept. 27 against the Dodgers in which he allowed four hits, no runs in 5 2/3 innings. Yet in Game Four, Parker started the sixth inning, gave up two hits, one walk, and left with the bases loaded and one out.
Shaw picked him up, allowed a sacrifice fly to Corey Hart, but induced Jerry Hairston to ground into a force out to end the inning.
“My job is to come in and throw strikes,” said Shaw, who has a 0.00 ERA in three playoff appearances. “ Overall, the bullpen has pitched tremendously well. We have different guys down there and they all pitch to their strengths.”
With Saunders out, the bullpen again came to the rescue. Save a Carlos Gomez, two-run homer off Hernandez in the eight, the bullpen allowed one run over the final six innings.
The 10 run production was the most for the Diamondbacks in post-season play since they beat the Yankees, 15-2 in the sixth game of the 2001 World Series. It is also the third time in post-season history the Diamondbacks reached double digits for runs scored in one game.
With firepower out of the bullpen came firepower at the plate.
Ryan Roberts started the festivities with a first inning grand slam and Chris Young immediately followed with a drive over the left center field fence. The back-to-back home runs were the first in Diamondback post-season history.
Aaron Hill followed with his first round-tripper in the post-season in the sixth off Brewers’ reliever Chris Narvenson. Young then slammed his second of the game, a two-run shot in the seventh off also Narvenson. When Young hammered his second of the game, that was the first multi-home run game for a Diamondbacks player in their post-season history.
In this elimination game, runs seem to come easy for the Diamondbacks.
After the Brewers’ Ryan Braun knocked in Hairston with a double and an early 1-0 lead in the top of the firsdt inning, Roberts responded with his second slam in a week to jump-started the offense. Roberts’ walk-off slam in the bottom of the 10th Sept. 27 gave the Diamondbacks perhaps their most dramatic win of the regular season.
This time, he deposited a Randy Wolf delivery into the Diamondbacks’ left field bullpen and a quick 4-1 lead in the first. Young followed with his bomb and later, Collin Cowgill, hitting for Saunders in the third, drilled a key, two run, two out single through the hole at shortstop. That gave the D-backs a 7-3 at that point.
“In that situation, I’m not trying to do too much,” said Roberts of his approach with the bases loaded. “I’ve faced (Wolf) many times and knew what to expect. I was looking for something low, but I saw the cutter and put a good swing on it. You just want to put a good swing on it and let it happen.”
Adding to Paul Goldschmidt’s grand slam in Game Three, that is only the second time in major league history that the feat of hitting grand slams in consecutive games has been accomplished. The only other time was by the 1977 Dodgers when Ron Cey (on Oct. 4) and Dusty Baker (Oct. 5) hit slams in back-to-games against the Phillies in the National League Championship Series.
If the regular season was less than Young wanted, the playoffs are an entirely different story. For 2011, the native of Houston, Texas hit .236 with 20 home runs and 72 RBIs. In four post-season contests, Young is the D-backs leading hitter at .429 (6-for-14), three home runs and four RBIs.
“I put the past behind me, and now, just relaxing,” Young said. “I’m still going through the same daily routine, but not pressing. Whatever happens, happens. Just go out and have fun.”
With his two home runs Oct. 5, Young is now the franchise all-time leader in post-season home runs with five round-trippers.
Counting their final two home games of the regular season and the first two games at Chase Field in the NLDS, the Diamondbacks have hit grand slams in each of those four games.
“When you get people on base, it adds a different element for your opponent,” said Gibson. “Certainly when the bases are loaded, it has a lot of pressure.”
WHAT’S GOING ON WITH GERARDO PARRA?
After a .292 season with 36 extra base hits in 141 games, D-backs leftfielder Gerarado Parra has hit the wall.
Going into Game Five of the NL Division Series, the 24 year-old native of Santa Barbara del Zuila, Venezuela was 0-15 and struck out six times. Despite recent maladies, Gibson said he has no intention of benching Parra.
In his usual number eight slot in the batting order for game Four, Parra was in the lineup against Brewers’ left-hander Randy Wolf, but proceeded to go 0-for-4 with one strike out.
“Things like this happen,” Gibson said before Game Four. “We talked, but it’s up to him. He has the ability to get out of this.”
One aspect of Parra’s game that has not suffered is his defensive play. With deceptive speed to reach nearly any fly ball his way, and combined with his lethal throwing arm, Parra remains an important part of Gibson’s overall approach.
“Defensively, he’s exceptional,” Gibson said. “As I’ve said, a player contributes in many ways, and with his arm, he’s a weapon.”
The formula for change is simple, according to Gibson.
“We told him to relax,” the manager added. “If he does that, and doesn’t press, he’ll see better pitches.”
CHANGE BEHIND THE PLATE
If Tim McCarver was Steve Carlton’s designated catcher with the Phillies, George Kottaras fills the same role with the Brewers.
With left-hander Randy Wolf going in Game Four, Jonathan Lucroy, Milwaukee’s everyday catcher, was replaced by the left-handed hitting Kottaras. For most of the season, Wolf and Lucroy have not been on the same page, and Brewers’ manager Ron Roenicke did not hesitate to make the move.
Of the 31 starts this season, Kottaras caught Wolf 22 times.
A disadvantage is Lucroy’s right handed bat is taken out of the lineup against D-backs left-handed Saunders, but, according to Roenicke, that’s a consequence worth taking.
With Saunders lasting only three innings in Game Four, Kottaras ended up playing the entire game and went 0-for-3 with a walk.
“Wolf, as the media knows, likes to have a nice rhythm going, and he was frustrated with Luc,” Roenicke said before Game Four. “And, Luc got frustrated with him. George works well with Randy, and I think it’s important that a pitcher/catcher be on the same page and have that rhythm going.”
With Gallardo going in Game Five, Lucroy is expected back behind the plate.